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Bush, Defense to Meet Wednesday to Discuss Diplomacy Towards China

Aired April 16, 2001 - 12:11   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We interrupt this report to take you live to Washington. Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, briefing the press right now.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ...defensive needs of Taiwan are. And he'll make his determination.

QUESTION: Is he leaning toward or against the Arleigh Burke class destroyer?

FLEISCHER: He's made no determination at this time.

QUESTION: Does the president believe it's necessary now for reconnaissance flights over and near China to be escorted to avoid the kind of near or actual collision/confrontation we had?

FLEISCHER: Let me make two points on that.

Number one, the United States will always reserve the right to operate over international waters and international airspace to protect the needs of our neighbors, to promote regional stability and secure peace, which is why our nation and many other nations fly reconnaissance missions.

Specifically, in the context of where we are today, the secretary of defense will be making a recommendation to the national security team for the president, and to the president, about what he recommends as far as reconnaissance flights, as well as other items and the timing of those flights, other associated missions that may or may not go along with those flights.

FLEISCHER: So that's a recommendation that the secretary of defense will make. The president has not yet received such a recommendation.

QUESTION: Does he not have a view on it, just based on going through this past experience?

FLEISCHER: Obviously, a matter like that is a matter the president would ask the secretary of defense to make a recommendation on, given the fact that it's directly a defense-related question. QUESTION: Ari, what's the message that we're going to send to the Chinese on Wednesday in these meetings in Beijing?

FLEISCHER: The agenda for the meeting Wednesday is basically fourfold: One is for the United States to provide a clear understanding to the Chinese about the cause of the accident from our point of view. Two is to discuss how any such accidents can be avoided in the future. Three, as the president indicated last week, to ask tough questions to the Chinese about the manner in which they have dangerously intercepted United States reconnaissance flights. And, four, to make the case that plane is United States property and the United States would like to have the plane returned.

QUESTION: How tough will those questions be?

FLEISCHER: I think they're going to be very direct. I think that, obviously, in the wake of this accident in which a Chinese pilot has lost his life and in which the lives of 24 American service men and women were endangered, tough questions are required. It is dangerous to operate in that manner. And for the safety of, not only our American crews, but for the Chinese crews involved, it is important the tough questions be asked so that any such incidents can be avoided in the future.

QUESTION: But then what? I mean, so you ask the tough questions. Every indication so far from China is that their conduct won't change. So what then?

FLEISCHER: I don't think that's quite right. The Chinese have lost a pilot over this. They've lost a life. And I don't think it's accurate to say that they're not going to make any changes.

QUESTION: But he's being celebrated as a martyr, so presumably...

FLEISCHER: I'm not certain that -- I don't think that either nation wants to have a repeat of an episode like this, and that means flying differently. And hopefully, that message will be received by the Chinese so that this can be avoided in the future.

QUESTION: The presumption of what you're saying is that the Chinese government has ordered the pilots to fly in this manner. Is that correct?

FLEISCHER: No, I'm not saying there is an order there. But we obviously have a United States point of view, which is a very strongly felt view about what caused the accident.

And I think it goes without saying that both nations should have an interest in making certain that this does not happen again.

QUESTION: Well, what I'm getting at is, whether or not the Chinese government in some respect, therefore, would be responsible for the accident that occurred if there is...

FLEISCHER: That will be a matter of discussion. But as you can see from Secretary Rumsfeld's news conference last week with the release of the videos, this is a problem that has persisted. It has gone back many months into the previous administration, and it is a topic that is ripe for discussion. It needs to be discussed in a forthright fashion.

QUESTION: When the Chinese are told at this meeting that the U.S. plans to resume these flights soon, will they also be told that their conduct...

FLEISCHER: Well, I did not give any indication that they will be told that at this meeting. I said that it's a recommendation from the secretary of defense, and no determination has been made.

QUESTION: Will they be told, then, that if these flights resume, that their conduct will determine whether the United States changes the manner in which these flights are flown, meaning that, if they continue to fly so closely, then...

FLEISCHER: I can commit to that. will be part of the determination, the recommendation made by the secretary of defense about the timing and other matters that relate to P-3 flights.

QUESTION: First of all, will there be an implicit trade link? In the talks, will trade be held out as a weapon if the Chinese do not...

FLEISCHER: I think the president made it clear on Thursday, in the statement he made in the Rose Garden, about the constructive value of trade for both nations. And as the president has indicated, for more than a year now, in regard to our relationship with China, the president sees many ares with China where we can cooperate, and trade is one of them. He sees other areas where there are problems with China. Human rights, religious persecution are two, to mention them specifically. This recent incident is also another cause for concern.

So the president has identified areas where we can continue to make progress with China, and there are other areas where we have items that need to be discussed forthrightly with China. And that will be the manner in which the president proceeds.

QUESTION: In your first statement, where you said the U.S. reserves the right to operate over international waters or airspace, how does that resolve when you have a country like China that has an extension of what they consider to be their space?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's the purpose of having a meeting, to air those issues, to listen to the Chinese, to hear what they say. The Chinese need to hear what we have to say, as a government. And that's the purpose of having meetings.

But if you presume that neither nation wants to have a repeat of this episode, then you can hope that these meetings will be constructive.


QUESTION: You say that both nations have an interest in making sure that doesn't happen again. Is the United States prepared to do anything differently on its end to ensure that? And secondly, you mentioned the Chinese lost a pilot, and may, therefore, you know, have an interest in changing its behavior, but the United States also nearly lost a crew of 24.


QUESTION: Would that have made a difference in how you're approaching things from here on out, if that crew had actually been lost?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to take that as a hypothetical, obviously, if the crew had been lost. Thankfully, they weren't, thanks to the flying abilities of the pilot. So that's a hypothetical that I'm very pleased I don't have to get into.

QUESTION: Is the United States prepared to do something differently on its end, if, as you say, both nations have an interest...

FLEISCHER: Well, let me reiterate that these reconnaissance flights help protect the peace. They serve as a very vital role in securing regional stability. The United States is not the only nation that engages in reconnaissance flights around the world. There are many, many, many nations that engage in reconnaissance flights around the world, for the reason that they do help protect the peace. And so long as these flights are over international waters and in international airspace, they're in accord with international law, and we are a law-abiding nation.

QUESTION: How do they help keep the peace.

FLEISCHER: Without getting into too many details about the information that they gather, the ability of the United States to be able to monitor events around the world, to be able to make certain that there are no surprises that could threaten any of our allies or threaten the United States forces, helps secure the peace. The ability of the United States to know if there are any hostile threats to our men and women, to our service men and to our allies, helps keep the world free and strong, and that's why these missions are important.

QUESTION: Ari, you're saying, many, many nations fly these flights. Can you point to some that China -- I know that Rumsfeld mentioned last week that China is among the nations that fly reconnaissance flights in Asia. Can you give us some more detail on that?

FLEISCHER: I didn't bring the list with me, of all the nations that fly these reconnaissance flights, but there are many. I'll be happy to get that for you post-briefing, or you can get that from DOD as well.

But it's an accepted, given part of international law that nations have flown reconnaissance flights over international airspace for many a year. QUESTION: And China does engage in that?

FLEISCHER: Again, I did not bring a list with me.

QUESTION: The right wing of the Republican Party, at least certain members of it, are very vociferous in their criticism of the way the president handled China. Is the president reaching out to them?

FLEISCHER: Well, I differ with your premise. I'm really not aware of very many people who have said anything like that.

QUESTION: "The Standard."

FLEISCHER: Anybody else?

QUESTION: Gary Bauer.

FLEISCHER: I mean, it's a very small number of people who have had anything like that to say. Frankly, I think the president is gratified by the support he has gotten from Democrats, from Republicans, for the manner in which this accident has been resolved, and I think it's a sign of American unity. And that's what the president has seen.

There will always be somebody on either end of the party who has something to say. But I think when you look at it in perspective, you've seen a very unified America behind what the president has done.

QUESTION: Ari, can I ask about the account that we've heard from the pilots? Very clearly, they're saying that the Chinese pilot was at fault for this collision. Does the president think China owes America an apology?

FLEISCHER: The president has not gotten into that, no. This matter has been resolved in the course of the letters, and we'll have ongoing discussions with the Chinese to make certain that it does not happen again.

QUESTION: When you say it has been discussed, he's discussed it with aides and decided not to ask for an apology?

FLEISCHER: I think the president is less interested in finger- pointing and placing blame than he is on moving forward and having resolved this issue. That's where the president's focus has been.

And I remind you that during one of the conference calls with General Sealock and Secretary Powell, the president said that we don't need to be pointing fingers, is how he put it during that phone conversation.

We're going to have a meeting with China in two days. And during that meeting, I think you can expect some forthright conversations about these flights and about what took place.

And as the president said in the Rose Garden on Thursday, both nations have to make a determined choice about the future of our relations. And the first evidence of those determined choices will come at that meeting on Wednesday.

And the president wants to hear what the Chinese have to say. He hopes what they say will be productive and will lead to a diminution of difficulties in the region.

QUESTION: Ari, first of all, how can you say that there's no finger-pointing when you said that it's clear that the Chinese have been taunting American flights since before this administration, into the Clinton administration? How can you say that?

And, two, is there a time line for America to get this spy plane back that we had? And if there is not a time line and it just keeps on going, are there some kind of ramifications that the government will take against China?

FLEISCHER: On the question of -- I think you used "finger- pointing." I think that you have to recognize that there is a legitimate difference between finger-pointing for the purpose of assigning blame and withholding important facts from the American people about an important matter that took place and the reasons why it took place and a history of flights that have been challenging reconnaissance aircraft.

That's why the president said that he was going to authorize his representatives at the meeting to ask tough questions. There are verifiable facts that are in the possession of the United States government.

That doesn't mean finger-pointing, but it does mean that the United States has an obligation to release those facts so that the American people have an understanding about what took place and what has been taking place over a period of time.

And I know that is backed up by Clinton administration officials as well. They can testify to the same history that we have seen now that President Bush is in office.

You had a second part of your question?

QUESTION: Is there a time line for America to get the spy plane back? And if not, what could China face if we don't this plane back?

FLEISCHER: I think we should allow the meeting to take place Wednesday. The United States representatives will ask for the plane to be returned.

QUESTION: But America was seeing President Bush pressure China, saying, "It's time for it to stop now. We want the 24 detainees back. We want the plane back."

You got the detainees, and you also said that there could be some damage to U.S.-China relations. You specified what that could be. What could the damage be if America doesn't get this plane back? FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate. Let's allow the diplomats and the members of the Defense Department to have the meeting on Wednesday, and then we'll see.

HARRIS: That meeting is the topic of the morning obviously at this briefing at the White House. And Ari Fleischer there conducting it with the press there.

Going into it, he was asked about whether or not President Bush made a decision about whether or not the U.S. will sell these controversial -- to China, at least -- aegis radar systems to Taiwan. He says no decision has been made on that just yet. He was also asked about whether or not the U.S. has changed its policy about the reconnaissance flights in international waters, and Mr. Fleischer saying the U.S. -- that actually the secretary of defense will make recommendations sometime fairly soon to President Bush about whether or not an escort will be flying along with the planes, but they don't have a decision as of yet.



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