- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

President Bush yesterday warned that China's relationship with the United States will be "damaged" if 24 American hostages are not freed soon from a military base where they have been detained for more than a week.

"Diplomacy takes time," Mr. Bush told reporters at a Cabinet meeting. "But there is a point the longer it goes there's a point at which our relations with China could become damaged."

China appeared unfazed as a government official reiterated Beijing's demands last night and dismissed the U.S. words so far as "unacceptable."

"Where is the responsibility? I think it's very clear," said Zhu Bangzao, a senior Foreign Ministry official traveling with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Argentina. "The pronouncements of the United States are unacceptable to the Chinese people. We are highly unsatisfied."

"The United States should apologize and respond appropriately," Mr. Zhu said at a Buenos Aires news conference. "If they don't, it's going to make things difficult."

The Bush administration, after initially taking a tough stance and then trying to assuage the Chinese with words like "sorry" and "regret," reverted to tough talk again yesterday.

"Every day that goes by increases the potential that our relations with China could be damaged," said Mr. Bush, repeating his point for emphasis. "It is now time for our troops to come home so that our relationship does not become damaged."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "the damage seen so far is reversible," suggesting the next step will not be.

But the administration refused to say what that next step might be or when it might be taken. It has been nine days since a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in international waters and had to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island.

"So long as the talks are ongoing and it remains as sensitive as it does, I'm going to refrain from getting into any of the specific steps," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "I do not think it would be productive to go down any of the items that could get damaged."

However, Mr. Fleischer signaled that punitive measures under consideration would cover the topics Mr. Bush discussed with Chinese Vice Prime Minister Qian Qichen at the White House on March 22.

The two leaders discussed trade, human rights, religious freedom, the president's planned visit to Beijing in October and China's desire for acceptance in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

They also discussed the sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan and American plans for a missile defense system that would extend to U.S. allies around the globe. China vociferously opposes both measures.

"Nothing we do is a threat to you, and I want you to tell that to your leadership," Mr. Bush told Mr. Qian in the meeting, according to a senior administration official.

Mr. Qian listened politely, but made no reply.

"They did talk about so many of the positive aspects of the United States-Chinese relations," Mr. Fleischer said yesterday. "It was one after another, all the positive, productive things that are under way between the United States and China.

"From the president's point of view, if this continues, so much of the good they talked about can go wrong, or will go wrong, and he wants to avoid that," he added.

Meanwhile, a commercial satellite image, released yesterday by SpaceImaging.com, showed the EP-3E parked on the Hainan airfield next to a long line of military-type trucks, raising fresh questions about China's actions regarding the plane and its sophisticated surveillance equipment.

"We continue to not have an understanding of what the Chinese are doing with the plane," said one U.S. official.

Although Congress is in recess, it is poised to vote against China on several major issues when it returns next month, the administration warned. These votes could include a rejection of permanent normal trade relations, which Congress passed last year.

"The longer this goes on, the more difficult it will be, and that will particularly manifest itself up on the Hill, where there are several important votes," Mr. Fleischer said.

"There are many things China wants in addition to normal trading relations, which I think probably are in some jeopardy," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"I wouldn't say they're going to be taken away, but I know I'm not as interested in supporting normal trade relations as I was because of this."

He added: "And China wants membership in the World Trade Organization. She wants the Olympics in the year 2008. There are several issues that we can start to put pressure on China, if required to do so. I hope not."

Some Republicans are already breaking with the administration on whether to refer to the 24 Americans as hostages. Although the White House and State Department call them detainees, Mr. Hyde yesterday repeated his insistence that they are hostages.

"I hate to increase the tension by elevating the rhetoric, but if you look up the definition of hostage, I don't see what else you can describe our 24 crewmen as," he said.

"They're being held against their will to accomplish some purpose," he added. "And the purpose, evidently, is to humiliate us before the world by making us apologize."

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines hostage as "a person held by one party in a conflict as a pledge that promises will be kept or terms met by the other party."

Chief among those terms is a demand by the Chinese for a full apology by the United States. Administration officials have stopped short of such an apology, although Mr. Bush wrote a letter to the widow of the Chinese pilot who died in the collision. The woman had accused Mr. Bush of being too "cowardly" to apologize.

Mr. Bush, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell have all taken pains to express "regret" over the death of the Chinese pilot. Mr. Powell upped the penitence ante Sunday by saying the United States was "sorry," a word repeated by Mr. Fleischer yesterday.

Some U.S. conservatives consider such expressions a demonstration of weakness on the part of the Bush administration. The conservative Weekly Standard issued an editorial headlined "A National Humiliation" that said "President Bush has revealed weakness."

Yesterday, administration officials submitted the fourth draft of a letter to China that was aimed at freeing the hostages. China has rejected the first three drafts, insisting the Americans have fallen short of the apology they require.

"We're working behind the scenes," said Mr. Bush, flanked by Mr. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "We've got every diplomatic channel open. We're in discussions with the Chinese."

Mr. Fleischer emphasized the creature comforts of the hostages, noting they have been given T-shirts and takeout food and are kept in air-conditioned rooms.

U.S. officials yesterday met for a fourth time with the crew, and U.S. Defense Attache Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock reported they were in "excellent health."

Meanwhile, an administration official declined to comment on a report in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times that revealed that China is preparing an underground nuclear test in the midst of the standoff. The test preparations were detected two weeks ago by U.S. spy satellites.

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