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U.S/China Standoff: China Set to Release U.S. Crew

Aired April 11, 2001 - 08:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We have received confirmation out of two simultaneous news conferences in China, as well as the White House, that Chinese officials will in fact be releasing the 24 crew from the Navy plane still being held in Hainan. That crew will be released in a matter of days, as long as certain procedures -- necessary procedures are being completed. This was the word first thing this morning from Hainan's Foreign Affairs officer Chen Ci.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHEN CI, FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN: The U.S. government has already said "very sorry" to the Chinese people. The Chinese government has, out of humanitarian considerations, decided to allow their crew members to leave China after completing the necessary procedures.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LIN: But Mr. Chen did say that this incident is not over by any means. China is still making several demands of the United States. China still holds the Navy plane, which is sitting on the tarmac at Hainan's airport. China is looking for the United States still to take full responsibility for this incident and to stop reconnaissance plane missions over China. A meeting has been scheduled for April 14 in regards to this.

In the meantime, right now, we have Lisa -- let me correct that. It's April 18 -- right now, we have Lisa Rose Weaver, who is standing by live by videophone from Hainan Island -- Lisa.

LISA ROSE WEAVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, as you said, Joie (sic), indeed, there has been -- it's going to be a few days before the crew of 24 are released. They have some things to work out before that can happen.

Now, we've tried to be in touch with the U.S. diplomats here on the ground who have been meeting face-to-face with the crew members all along to see where they are tonight. It's not possible to reach them at the moment. Earlier, they said they were waiting for the call from the Chinese side to have a sixth meeting with the crew members. And it's just not clear if they are having that meeting now. Mr. Chen Ci, of the Chinese Hainan foreign affairs office, told about procedures that would have to be completed before the Americans can go home. One of those would be what kinds of travel documents they would need to have. The U.S. officials here in Hainan have been preparing for the eventuality of perhaps having to make passports here, give the Americans the proper travel documents, so that -- so that the Americans can leave. They have been anticipating this need for a while. It's just not clear exactly what documents they are going to have to come up with.

Now, the other thing is, we don't know if the Americans are going to continue meeting with the crew members in the days before their release. They had success the last couple of meetings in being able to meet with them without going through Chinese government channels and meeting with them with no Chinese officials in the room. So we -- it would be safe to say that they hope that they are going to get some more consular visits with the crew members before they leave China. But there is no way to confirm at this moment whether that will be possible -- Joie (sic).

LIN: Lisa, it's Carol Lin at the CNN Center.

So what you're saying is that the American officials now have free and easy access to the crew? They can pretty much see the crew whenever they need to or want to?

WEAVER: Well, no, it's not quite that easy, Lin.

The last couple of meetings that they've had with them have been relatively easy. They have been able to -- and they still need -- they still need the go-ahead from the Chinese officials to meet with the Americans. But once they get the go ahead, they have been able to go directly to where they are being held in a military facility in Haikou and meet with them, all 24 of them, without Chinese officials in the room.

What we don't know now is whether they will be able to continue those meetings, continue to have access to the Americans up until the time they are released -- Lin.

LIN: All right. Thank you very much, Lisa Rose Weaver, reporting live -- Colleen.

COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Now, China still has a couple of items on its to-do list. It wants to meet with U.S. officials. It wants to talk about the U.S. stopping aircraft -- stopping sending aircraft -- reconnaissance aircraft the vicinity of the Chinese coast. And, also, it wants to discuss effective measures, what it calls effective measures to avoid similar incidents from happening in the future.

And joining us now with more on China's reaction to all of this, China's role in all of this, China's continued demands in all of this is CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon, who is in Beijing -- Rebecca.

REBECCA MACKINNON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Colleen, yes, the Chinese have made it very clear this incident is not over; this chapter is not closed. The U.S. crew is going to be released soon for what the Chinese characterize as "humanitarian" reasons. But it's very clear that the United States and China have very significant differences over what exactly transpired with the air collision, that this needs to be worked out -- and according to the information I have that there will be meetings, which will begin on April 18 -- that is next week -- in which the two sides are going to discuss causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future, and development of a plan for the return of the EP-3 aircraft and other related issues. That is according to a written statement by U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher.

So, he also said in his statement: "We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting." So it is very clear that, even though the Chinese are insisting on an end to reconnaissance missions, the United States making it clear, while they acknowledge that request, it's going to be some long and difficult talks ahead -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: Right. Rebecca, now over many, many years, there has been an acknowledgment on both sides that spying does happen. The U.S. spies on the Chinese. The Chinese spy on the U.S. So does China really want these missions stopped? Or is this sending a message, laying a table for negotiations as much as anything else?

MACKINNON: Well, it's certainly China making it very clear that it wants some kind of concession. Now, whether or not they are going to succeed in getting all reconnaissance missions stopped entirely is not clear. I think they are hoping that different rules will be put in place, perhaps the U.S. planes may not be able to come quite as close. The U.S. has made it very clear that it has no intention of stopping reconnaissance missions altogether, that it has the right to do whatever it wants in U.S. airspace.

So -- but with these negotiations, it does appear that China is going to try and get as many concessions out of the United States as it feels it can. It has one piece of collateral left. That is the U.S. airplane. So it -- in the end, it depends on how badly the U.S. wants that plane back vs. how much the Chinese feel that they can hold out and what they feel they can get -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: Rebecca, I know you have had your hands full covering the diplomatic ins and outs of this story. But I'm wondering what sense you have been able to get from members of the Chinese public about how they have felt, how they have reacted, how they have felt about the demand for the apology and then the eventual receipt of that letter that has the "two sorry's" in it, as the U.S. State Department likes to characterize it -- the "two sorry's."

MACKINNON: Yes, well, the Chinese public is only just finding out about this letter from the United States ambassador to the Chinese government.

Now, what is clear, though, that the Chinese public, the people we've been speaking with over the past several days on the streets and other people I know better, who will express their real opinions to me, it's clear that people do feel across the board that the United States was pushing the limits, that it was offensive towards China by conducting the kind of reconnaissance missions that it did. A lot of people find that quite offensive here. And people here generally do believe that the United States was responsible for the collision. They are angry about that -- and that they feel that some kind of apology was absolutely necessary.

Now, of course, there has been a lot of diplomatic hair-splitting about the wording of "apology." I do have the Chinese text of the letter. It's not clear whether that full text is going to be released publicly or not. It does not use the most extreme form of "apology." It uses several other terms, which are -- which really use -- approach a middle ground, expressing sorrow and regret and so forth, that kind of apology, rather than the kind of apology that accepts full responsibility.

We'll just have to see what kind of public reaction there is to that -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon for us in Beijing -- Carol.

LIN: We will be hearing from the president of the United States at 8:25 a.m. Eastern out of Washington, D.C., the White House, in fact -- that briefing at 8:25 a.m. Eastern. And CNN will carry it live.

But, in the meantime, we have Eileen O'Connor standing by at the White House. Eileen, we've been talking about the shades of meaning and the language of diplomacy and how important that is. And you actually have a copy of the letter that was sent to the Chinese officials.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I do, Carol.

But first a little color: the president himself was informed about this breakthrough in the diplomacy by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice at 5:20 a.m. this morning, told that there was an agreement and that the crew members would be released shortly.

We were given a copy of the letter by White House officials. And, basically, you can see the difference of the shades of meaning. As you heard, Chinese officials were saying the United States was very sorry for, basically, for invading Chinese territory, "violating Chinese territory" was the exact wording they were using.

But, in fact, in this letter what they say in English is: "Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures."

You know, they gave that mayday call.

"We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely." Clearly, that is a diplomatic dance, saying that they are very sorry that they entered Chinese airspace without a verbal clearance. But U.S. officials have always contended, under a mayday signal, they do not need a verbal clearance to land that aircraft, because it was a distress call and a distress situation.

Another thing the Chinese officials are stressing is that they are demanding that the United States end these reconnaissance flights near China. As you know, the United States and the Chinese have admitted that this incident happened outside of Chinese territorial waters. It was over international waters. The United States say that these reconnaissance missions are justified and are OK under international law.

So the wording by the U.S. side is that: "We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting." And this, of course, is that meeting of the maritime consultation group.

So different shades of meanings -- again, the United States not quite going and saying that they violated Chinese airspace, and also not agreeing at all to end these reconnaissance flights -- Colleen.

LIN: Eileen, it's Carol.

That's very interesting in terms of what is being released. Rebecca MacKinnon out of Beijing was just saying that she's still not sure if the Chinese officials will be release that letter in its entirety. But, this morning, Chinese officials in Hainan were only reading portions of it, saying that the United States had apologized for entering Chinese airspace, and not mentioning anything about the mayday or emergency landing.

In the meantime, what do officials there at the White House know about when the crew is going to be released?

O'CONNOR: Well, they are not giving any details and -- but the one thing that was said by the press secretary in a written statement by Ari Fleischer, they say that Ambassador Prueher has delivered to the Chinese government a letter concerning this incident. "We're working out with the Chinese government the arrangements for departure." And he also says that the U.S. ambassador has received "verbal assurances from the Chinese government that the air crew will be allowed to leave promptly" -- so the U.S. saying that they have received assurances that, whatever arrangements are being made, that they are going to be made very promptly -- Carol.

LIN: You know, it's interesting, their weren't, apparently, any contacts between the United States and China yesterday. So, what happened?

O'CONNOR: Well, one of the things the U.S. administration officials says is that they were waiting for the Chinese response. And administration officials also said this was a very delicate time of diplomacy. Sometimes, it isn't what you say; it's what you don't say. And having silence from the U.S. side basically indicates to the Chinese that: This is our position. It's where it's staying.

And the U.S. positions had not really moved beyond the Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing -- using the word "sorry" over the weekend and the United States saying that they were willing to say that they were sorry to the missing pilot's wife and to the Chinese people, but they were not going to apologize.

And, again, they laid out those steps to resolve this issue after the crew was returned safely. So it was up to the Chinese, according to U.S. officials. And they were waiting for the Chinese response. And that response came overnight. And, as you see by this letter, the one thing that seemed to move in the U.S. language is also saying that they were sorry that this landing occurred without verbal permission.

So that seems to be the only other area where the United States gave a little more in the diplomacy from their original position or the position that they had established over the weekend -- Carol.

LIN: All right, very interesting. Thank you very much, Eileen O'Connor, reporting live with the latest from the White House -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: And a reminder that U.S. President George Bush is planning to make a statement just about 10 minutes from now. And we'll, of course, bring it to you live when it happens.

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