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State Department Announces Planned Release of American Crewmembers

Aired April 11, 2001 - 13:07   ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We have Phil Reeker, today's State Department spokesman, talking about the evolution of the U.S.-China standoff resolution. He is speaking to reporters now. Let's take part of that live.

PHIL REEKER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: ... been a useful tool, a useful diplomatic structure for an avenue of discussions. But in terms of how this meeting between the two sides, between the Chinese and American sides, will evolve, I just don't have the details for you on that.

QUESTION: I guess on Air Force One, Ari Fleischer gave a bit of a run-down of the timing, sequence of events that happened, but it was mainly involving the White House.

REEKER: Right.

QUESTION: I understand that this final resolution actually began to come about earlier, with a meeting between the deputy chief of mission in Beijing, who went into the Chinese Foreign Ministry and then came back out and reported to the embassy, to Ambassador Prueher...

REEKER: Right. Let me go through what I can in terms of the sequencing. Obviously, as you all are aware, we're dealing with an issue half a world away, a 12-hour time difference.

Ambassador Prueher met this afternoon, that would be Wednesday, April 11, between 5 and 6 p.m. Beijing time, with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang and handed over the letter, which I discussed, which you've seen.

REEKER: That meeting, as you indicated, was proceeded by lower- level meetings earlier in the day, beginning in the morning Beijing time, where our deputy chief of mission and our political consular from the embassy met with their counterparts to discuss final details.

So as we've discussed over the period of this issue, this has been an intensive diplomatic effort. Intensive diplomatic negotiations have been coordinated at the highest levels of our government under the leadership of the president, the secretary of state and the national security adviser, as well as the secretary of defense and a number of people working very closely with Ambassador Prueher and our outstanding team at our embassy in Beijing, plus those diplomats who have been on the ground in Hainan Island.

I think President Bush remarked this morning on the superb job that those diplomats have done. This has been part of a very intense diplomatic effort, and we're going to continue working out the details, the logistics, to have our crew come home.

QUESTION: Can you be a little bit more specific? When the deputy chief of mission went into the embassy, was he carrying with him a draft -- or what we might think of as a draft -- and said, "OK, this is our latest and final proposal"?

REEKER: I think, as we've been indicating all along, we have been working on this through diplomatic channels. So in terms of trying to specify drafts or the evolution of this, it is something that has gone on over the days we've been working this. So to suggest that there was any one particular draft would be slightly disingenuous.

REEKER: It's a process that's evolved. The deputy chief of mission and the political consular had meetings this morning with their counterparts in the Chinese Foreign Ministry. They returned to the embassy. That then evolved into a meeting where Ambassador Prueher was able to present the final agreed-upon letter to the foreign minister, signed, dated today.

QUESTION: Do you have a time for when they were...

REEKER: As I believe Ari Fleischer may have indicated, it was somewhere between 5 and 6 p.m. Beijing time when Ambassador Prueher...

QUESTION: No, I meant for the earlier one.

REEKER: I don't have specific times for you. That's something we can pursue as we look back on this, but I don't have the times right now.

QUESTION: Can you give us some sense of how different the final letter was from the earlier drafts? Because as I recall, Secretary Powell sent a letter to Qian Qichen, I believe it was last Friday. So can you give us any sense of what changed and what triggered the acceptance on the Chinese part?

REEKER: Well, again, this is the result of a complex diplomatic process that involves diplomatic channels at all levels. I think we've discussed Secretary Powell's letter to Vice Premier Qian Qichen. Ambassador Prueher mentioned it again today, that that laid out a road map. The secretary himself, as well as National Security Advisor Rice, spoke on Sunday, indicated that we did provide the Chinese with a road map for resolving this. And this letter, obviously, is the result of that diplomatic process. And that is what has been delivered and what's been made available to you.

QUESTION: The earlier letter didn't specify that the U.S. government was sorry, though, as I recall. According to what we were told, it just said that we had regrets. REEKER: I think the bottom line is that the letter speaks for itself. The letter is the result of the diplomatic process. The letter is what we've delivered. You've heard the secretary, you've heard the president say these things. The letter reiterates that both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over the missing pilot and aircraft. We are very sorry for the loss of the pilot.

A pilot, a father, a husband, a son was killed in this tragic accident. And we are very sorry about that. The president has expressed that. The secretary has expressed that. And, again, that is reiterated in the letter.

QUESTION: And just one final and then I'll let my colleagues get in, and that is, we have said twice in this letter that we are "very sorry." Please explain to me what is the difference between saying, "We are very sorry," and an apology?

REEKER: Well, I think I'm going to leave that to you. The letter speaks for itself. Again, we've gone through this over time, about getting out dictionaries. I think the letter is very clear in what it says. We are very sorry for the loss. We express to the Chinese people, and particularly the family of the pilot, that we're sorry for their loss. As I said, a father, a husband, a son was killed in this tragic accident.

We also indicated, and it's clear in the letter, that when our aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing, we're sorry the entering of China's airspace and landing did not have verbal clearance. Again, we're very sorry about that; the aircraft made an emergency landing following international emergency procedures.

REEKER: We are very pleased, of course, that the crew landed safely, and we're most pleased now that the crew air men and women will be coming home.

QUESTION: The U.S. policy does not include the collision. Is that correct? It's just for the invasion of the airspace and the apparent loss of life for the pilot. You're not apologizing for the action?

REEKER: I haven't said apology at all and your...

QUESTION: Well, you're saying you're sorry.

REEKER: ... reflection of that...

QUESTION: What's the definition of apologizing?

REEKER: What I have is a letter, and it's been made very clear to you, and it speaks for itself.

QUESTION: Right. But I'm asking you if what you're apologizing for excludes the incident?

REEKER: I think it's very clear, Nick, what we're saying. And the words of the letter, I'm not going to parse them. They're simply very clear. They're very factual. We are sorry for the loss of the airman. We're very sorry about. We've expressed that over a period of days now.

We're also very sorry the entering of Chinese airspace and the landing did not have a verbal clearance. We're pleased that the crew landed safely, and they followed emergency landing procedures, according to standard international conduct.

QUESTION: Yesterday, State Department officials were saying that the U.S. had offered about all it could and was waiting to hear the Chinese response. Did the language of this letter change in the interim at all, or was this the same language that was on for, say, Sunday?

REEKER: Again, I don't think I'm going to be able to characterize or do a step-by-step characterization of any particular language. What we have to look at is a complex, difficult diplomatic process that took place over a period of days at the highest levels, under the leadership of President Bush, Secretary Powell very much involved, the other leaders of our national security team, working, obviously, with the Chinese to develop a resolution to this issue.

REEKER: So it's impossible to characterize the step-by-step process that took place. What I can offer you is the result, and that is the letter that you've seen, the letter that's been released by the White House that was delivered by our ambassador to the Chinese, and the result, our being very pleased that our crew men and women will be able to come home.

QUESTION: The letter says, "We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting." Can you, at this point, tell us how the U.S. will respond to that? And also, could you tell us any of the issues that the U.S. may want to raise in such a meeting?

REEKER: I think it would be premature to discuss how we'll respond at a meeting which will take place beginning a week from now, for which we don't have all the modalities or the details. And we'll try to bring you up to date on those as they evolve through the diplomacy.

The letter outlines an agenda, which will include discussion of the causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future, and development of a plan for the prompt return of our aircraft and other related issues. So that's what we'll be pursuing. That's the stated agenda of that meeting, but we need to let the diplomacy continue as we evolve with the details of that.

QUESTION: May I just beat a dead horse? So does the U.S. have any recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future?

REEKER: I think that's what we'll have to wait and see, and we'll let the people involved in that meeting speak to that at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the point about return of the Navy detector plane. It says "development of a plan." That may be intentionally ambiguous, or it may just be that I don't understand the phrase.

We know the crew's coming back, and the plan to bring them back involves transporting them. Do we know the plane is coming back? Or will they talk about the return of the plane without a certitude that we will get the plane back?

REEKER: Obviously, the return of the crew has been our number one priority from the beginning of this incident, after the tragic accident. We have also stated repeatedly that we expect the return of our aircraft. But as the letter states fairly clearly, that will be on the agenda at the meeting. The diplomacy continues. The discussions will continue.

Right now, we're focused on the logistics, the diplomacy necessary to make sure that our crew can leave, according to the assurances the Chinese have given us. And then, a week from now, we'll take up these issues, including the very prompt return of our aircraft.

QUESTION: Does that mean that there is not now an agreement for the Chinese to return the plane? You say that there is an agreement, you have verbal assurances, an agreement for the crew to come back. But the plane, even the actual return of it, not the modalities of returning it, that is still up in the air?

REEKER: I don't want to say anything further than what the letter describes, simply to...

QUESTION: The second thing is, I'm a little confused here, Barbara mentioned a letter that the secretary sent on Friday. My understanding is that was a letter that was actually handed over to the Chinese ambassador here Wednesday evening. Is that correct?

This road map that you're talking about...

REEKER: I would have to go back and check for you the specific tic-toc, as you guys like to call it, of letters. I know that Richard has spoken about a letter that the secretary sent to Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen. That was an important letter, as the secretary himself indicated.

The United States had provided the Chinese with a road map, as we saw the opportunity, and an outline of the steps necessary to resolve the issues. So that was clearly an important matter.

The secretary, as you know, has been very involved with this. He was kept up to date on his aircraft last night, since he has been in Paris, with regular updates, regular conversations with Deputy Secretary Armitage.

The president, obviously, has been kept up to date through National Security Adviser Rice.

I will have to check for you on the sequence of letters.

QUESTION: As far you know, though, there was only one letter?

REEKER: There was a letter that the secretary sent to Qian Qichen.

QUESTION: One letter?

REEKER: And I would have to check on additional things. There has been intensive diplomacy, so to describe letters versus conversations versus drafts is a very difficult matter when you're dealing with an ongoing diplomatic process.

QUESTION: Can you go back for a moment to the April 18 meeting?

REEKER: April 18?

QUESTION: This meeting that you...

REEKER: We're going back to April 18?


REEKER: To the subject of the April 18 meeting, please.

QUESTION: Are you not offering details about the meeting because they haven't been worked out and you still have to work out the modalities?

REEKER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Or are you not ready to talk about it at this point?

REEKER: I would suggest it's a combination of both right now. We're looking forward to the return of our aircrew. I'm not familiar with the ongoing diplomacy that is involved in setting up the details and modalities of that meeting.

QUESTION: Can you say if it's going to be under the umbrella or under the framework of this Maritime Commission? Will it be on the sidelines of this meeting? Or will it be a completely separate bilateral meeting?

REEKER: I can't say at this point. As I indicated to the earlier question, the Maritime Commission that has been in existence since 1998 has been a useful structure for approaching issues. And we'll have to see how it evolves, how this particular meeting that begins April 18 evolves. And we will try to provide details as we have them, but I just don't have anything further on it.

QUESTION: OK, but this meeting between the two countries will be specifically for the purpose of resolving this particular incident and any final problems that arise? REEKER: As the letter said, both sides agree to hold a meeting to discuss the incident. And then we outlined, as I mentioned a moment ago, the agenda items that will be included on the agenda. But obviously, I just don't have the final word on that meeting. That is something that will evolve in the coming days.

QUESTION: Yesterday, the president referred to a stalemate, and now the stalemate has been broken. Could you give us at least some indication as to what broke the stalemate on either something that we did or something that they changed?

REEKER: Well, I think it goes to the heart of diplomacy. Diplomacy involves intensive discussions. As Ambassador Boucher indicated, as the president indicated, and certainly the secretary also indicated over the past several days, we've had all diplomatic channels open.

REEKER: We've been working this at the highest level here in Washington, in Beijing, through our embassy team there.

I think in diplomacy it's very difficult to characterize specific events. Diplomacy involves two sides in this case. And obviously, it was a matter of working with the Chinese, presenting to them our road map, as we described it, and ultimately presenting this letter that outlines the steps to fully resolve the issue. And so I think that's really as much as I can describe in terms of the process. And now, we're just very pleased that our service men and women will be coming home.

QUESTION: If I could follow up, just to make one more run at this, could you perhaps indicate, then, when it was decided to insert the terms "very sorry" into our diplomatic communications?

REEKER: I think you've seen us, over a number of days now, talking about our regret and being very sorry about the incident, the loss of the pilot, as I mentioned. The president said that. He spoke on behalf of the American people, that we are sorry that a Chinese aviator, a father, a husband, a son, was lost in this incident.

And as the letter outlines and as we've indicated earlier in the president's statements and the secretary's statements, we're very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have the verbal clearance. But of course, we're very pleased that the crew landed safely, and we're very pleased that they'll be coming home.

QUESTION: Phil, a few days ago, there was talk of a joint statement being signed by both governments. What the White House released this morning is obviously a unilateral statement. Do you know, was there ever talk of a joint statement, perhaps in the secretary's letter to Qian Qichen last week? Was that ever a possibility? Was it talked about?

REEKER: I don't know if that is something that came up in the ongoing discussions. Obviously, when you have a diplomatic process, a lot of things are discussed, a lot of options, a lot of possibilities. This letter, as it says, outlines the steps to resolve this issue. The Chinese have responded to this letter with their own commentary.

This letter speaks for itself, in terms of what Ambassador Prueher says on behalf of the United States. And I think it's very clear what it says. So this is obviously the process, the point we're at now, in terms of releasing this letter, looking forward to the return of our crew men and women. And then we'll move forward to the meeting to take place next week. Details of that will evolve, and we'll go from there. Diplomacy is ongoing.

QUESTION: Referring to language, in English, "very sorry," "sorry," "apologies" are all fairly synonymous; in the Chinese language, I understand that they're at different levels. Was the level of regret dialed-up a notch or two in order to get this through?

QUESTION: And also, did the Chinese offer anything verbally, on paper, in any way, shape or form, condolences, regret, anything at all for any portion of this incident?

REEKER: Again, I'll let the Chinese speak for themselves. Our letter speaks for us.

And in terms of trying to delve into translation and how these words come across, our letter is in English. That's how we've released it to you, and so it speaks very much for itself. I just don't think there's anything more I can say to that. The letter expresses what we feel. It expresses what the president said.

QUESTION: It's my understanding that the letter uses two different forms of "regret" in Chinese to say the same thing. And then there are others...

REEKER: Again, I would leave that for the Chinese experts. Our letter is in English. It's how we've released it. I can't do translation for you.

QUESTION: I mean, clearly the Chinese are interpreting this expression of regret in a way that perhaps you might not intend it. The Chinese are clearly coming out and saying, "The U.S. has apologized for this." They feel as if they've gotten concessions from the U.S., that they've apologized for the incident.

And even if you haven't apologized for the incident, the meaning of the words that you've used, clearly they're parsing it. And does it matter to the U.S. that they're interpreting it in ways that...

REEKER: Again, I leave that to them. I can't speak for them. What I can say is what matters to us is that our crew men are returning and that our letter speaks very much for itself. That's why we've released it. That's why we've made it available to all of you and to the public.

QUESTION: Was it only released, I mean, in English? I mean, the United States must have had our own translators going over this and sending to them in Chinese...

REEKER: No, I don't believe that was the case. I'll be happy to check for you. But I believe that our letter was...

QUESTION: It was only sent to them in English?

REEKER: I'll have to check. That's something I don't know, if we did a translation or we allowed the Chinese to do the translation. I'll have to check that for you.


QUESTION: ... that the word that was used was bao qian in Chinese...

REEKER: I don't speak Chinese.

QUESTION: ... and this is different from other ways of expressing regret. And so did we say those were the appropriate Chinese characters?

REEKER: I would have to check on that. I don't know anything about translations, and that's something I'd have to follow up for you.

Let me just add, since we were able to clarify, there was one letter from the secretary, dated the 3rd of April, to Qian Qichen, one letter.

QUESTION: Follow-up on that letter: Will the State Department at some point release it?

REEKER: Doubtful. I'm happy to ask for you.

QUESTION: OK. Thank you.

QUESTION: Phil, is it safe to say or accurate to say that you don't consider this incident over until the plane is returned?

REEKER: Well, obviously, from the beginning, we have said that we want to see our aircraft returned. We believe it needs to be returned. The letter makes that clear, that in the meeting we'll have beginning next week, we will be developing a plan for prompt return of the aircraft.

Right now, what's most important today, and the president has expressed that, is that our aircrew, the patriotic, brave men and women, 24 of them, will be coming home.

QUESTION: But you can't go on with the relationship with China as it was. I mean, there's this issue still hanging over the relationship, isn't there?

REEKER: Today really isn't the day to be reflecting on relations or relationships. We're looking forward to the return of the 24 men and women. Diplomacy continues, and it will continue. QUESTION: More about the letter. Just one question, just following up.


QUESTION: With this idea of the U.S. saying that it was sorry for landing in Chinese space or landing without permission...

REEKER: Without a verbal clearance, right.

QUESTION: Without a verbal clearance. Can you tell us, did that idea originate in Washington or was something that maybe originated with U.S. officials in Beijing?

REEKER: Again, I don't think that's something that one could actually determine. It's been very much a team effort.

Our team in Beijing has performed superbly. The president recognized that. Ambassador Prueher has been outstanding, along with his embassy team, along with the outstanding, hardworking men and women here in Washington.

They worked together on this, and so to specify the genesis of a particular word or phraseology is really an impossible task, in terms of diplomacy.

QUESTION: So you can't tell us whose idea it was or...

REEKER: I can't, no.

QUESTION: ... or who phrased the particular way of saying sorry?

REEKER: I can't. It was a team effort. This entire thing has been the result of intensive, team-led diplomatic practice.

QUESTION: A week ago, Richard Boucher said that the Chinese were violating standard international practice by holding our people and by objecting to the fact that a plane in distress made an emergency landing. Haven't we somehow gone 180 degrees from that, by apologizing to the Chinese for an emergency landing...

REEKER: Again...

QUESTION: ... or saying we were very sorry...

REEKER: ... I'm not going to...

QUESTION: ... excuse me...

REEKER: ... go with your various...

QUESTION: ... for making an emergency landing.

REEKER: ... characterizations. I think the letter very much speaks for itself. We've been saying for days now, Barbara, that we're sorry, first of all, about the loss of the airmen. QUESTION: Have we changed our views that a plane in distress has the right to make an emergency landing?

REEKER: No. Our view is that our crippled aircraft, which was severely crippled, in an accident, the full picture of which has not transpired, made an emergency landing, following standard international emergency procedures.

REEKER: And that's exactly what happened.

In terms of the full picture of what transpired, that will be part of the meeting that will take place beginning a week from now. The agenda will include discussion of the causes of the incident, recommendations, as I said, on how such collisions could be avoided in the future. So we will continue our diplomacy in our discussion of this.

QUESTION: Are there any other agreements between the U.S. and China that have helped to bring about an end to this impasse? I ask because you're saying right now that you're not ready to talk about the plane's return, but Senator Graham of the Intelligence Committee said on our air earlier today that he's been told that the plane will be returned to the United States and that that return will commence on the 18th.

REEKER: As I said, commencing on the 18th will be discussions, will be a meeting where we expect, as the letter says, development of a plan for the prompt return of our aircraft.

We have discussed the return or our aircraft since the beginning of this incident. That's still important to us. Right now, today, the priority is return of our people. And we will just need to let this meeting take place and let that evolve.

QUESTION: That's not what he said.

REEKER: I'm not in a position to prejudge the meeting or the process.

REEKER: There's been an agreement to hold a meeting. And if you read closely the language of the letter, it says that development of a plan for prompt return of our aircraft. I don't want to try to parse the word "prompt" for you here on the 11th of April when there's going to be a meeting on the 18th. Let's let that evolve. We'll fill you in on the details as they develop, in terms of the who and the where of that meeting, and then we'll obviously be able to look at the next step.

QUESTION: So we should understand that sentence to read that the two sides have an agreement that there will be a prompt return of the aircraft?

REEKER: I think I can only go as far as what the letter says. It speaks for itself, that something that is on the agenda, "development of a plan for the prompt return of our aircraft." QUESTION: I may have missed this in your explanation regarding the language, but did the Chinese offer anything whatsoever, verbally, on paper, in any way, shape or form, a regret, a condolence, a sorry for not answering your mayday, anything at all along those lines?

REEKER: I'd really have to refer you to them. I haven't had an opportunity to look at all of their statements. I focused on our statements. So I know they've held press briefings, they've put out statements. I've seen things on the web, but I just haven't been able to review all of that. And that's something I'll leave for them to do.


QUESTION: ... repeat the letter verbatim, another seven or eight times, I think before we can go on.

REEKER: I'm happy to do it, so...

QUESTION: For the last week or more than a week, since this happened, it has been a sensitive diplomatic moment, according to everyone. Is it still a sensitive diplomatic moment?


Is it a sensitive diplomatic moment only until the crew leaves Chinese airspace, depending on whose definition of Chinese airspace you're using? Or is it not resolved completely until the plane has come back?

REEKER: Obviously, our primary focus has been and remains today, the return of our crew. So in the sense that this has been a difficult situation for both our countries, as the president said, you can call it sensitive if you wish. We're very pleased that our crew is coming home.

Diplomacy will be ongoing. There will be a formal...

QUESTION: So the case isn't closed yet?

REEKER: I think the letter states very clearly what we've agreed. And I just use that because I think you can write a pretty good story based on what the letter says.

QUESTION: Has Secretary Powell been in direct contact with any officials either traveling with Jiang or in Beijing since the weekend, since the...

REEKER: Not that I'm aware of, no. He's been in close touch, obviously, with Acting Deputy Secretary Armitage, with the rest of the national security team. He has spoken with Ambassador Prueher in Beijing, as I mentioned, on his flight to Paris last night. And during his time in Paris, he's been kept very much up to date on the goings on. He's been very involved in the development of the letter, the language and this diplomatic process.

QUESTION: Is the United States still pressing for condemnation of China in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva?

QUESTION: And what's the situation with the American scholar that's held there? And thirdly, the arms sale to Taiwan. Will all of these issues come up at the April 18 meeting or not at all?

REEKER: Let's take those separately.

First of all on Geneva, I don't have any update for you there that I'm aware of. Our position remains very much the same. I'm happy to check afterwards on where things stand there.

The second question was the Chinese scholars. I don't have an update on that. As you know, it's an issue that we have raised repeatedly in our contacts with the Chinese. Obviously, you can have a number of issues to bring on at any one time. I don't have anything new for you today on that.

On the Taiwan arms sale, obviously that's a completely separate issue. That is not an aspect of the April 18 meeting. I again refer you to the letter which outlines the agenda of that meeting.

As we've said many times, as you all know, the administration conducts a careful interagency review to determine what systems Taiwan needs for its defense. Decisions are made on established criteria. We don't discuss those decisions publicly. It's very much a separate issue, and we certainly don't consult with the People's Republic of China on our arms sales decisions.

QUESTION: Yesterday, or actually last week, the Chinese ambassador sent a letter to every member of Congress asking them not to support...

REEKER: A lot of postage stamps.

QUESTION: ... a resolution urging the IOC not to approve Beijing's bid for the Olympics.

QUESTION: And apparently this resolution won't be put to a vote for the whole floor until it's approved by the administration. Is the administration willing to support China's effort toward the Olympics?

REEKER: I don't think we've taken a position on that resolution, and that's really a decision for the International Olympic Committee.

WATERS: All right, that's the State Department today on the announced release of the 24 aircrew men and women, an acknowledgement of that from the State Department and a tip of the hat to the diplomats who worked on the language in the letter which China has now accepted with a verbal assurance of releasing the crew.

What's next, and you heard the questions being asked about the plane, will the plane be returned as the United States has demanded. There will be a meeting on April 18th, a week from today, to discuss the incident and, to quote Mr. Reeker, "develop a plan for the prompt return of the aircraft." So, that's it from the State Department. Secretary of State Colin Powell is in Paris today. He is about to step forward into the public with other foreign ministers, whom he has been meeting with over the Kosovo conflict. That's the purpose of today's meeting, but if the secretary has something to add about the U.S.-China agreement, we will certainly pick that up live and bring that to you from Paris.



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