- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

The United States' letter of "sorrow" to the Chinese government was distorted at once yesterday by Beijing's state-run media.
The People's Daily, the voice of China's Communist Party, said the letter contained a U.S. admission that its Navy EP-3E aircraft had rammed an F-8 fighter, causing the Chinese plane and pilot to crash into the South China Sea.
The letter contains no such admission.
At the government level, an official Chinese translation of the letter approved by President Bush takes the English word "sorry" and translates it into a Chinese word meaning apology and implying responsibility, according to a Pentagon analysis.
"Apology" and "responsibility" were words demanded by Beijing, but which the White House repeatedly refused to say during 11 days of negotiations to win the release of 24 EP-3E crew members.
The English-language letter, submitted in Beijing by U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher, states carefully that the U.S. government is "very sorry" for the loss of the pilot's life. It says the United States is "very sorry" the crippled surveillance plane did not get permission when it entered Chinese airspace and made an emergency landing on Hainan island.
The letter leaves the question of blame an open issue. Pentagon officials privately say the F-8 pilot had a history of reckless intercepts and caused the accident by flying too closely to the lumbering, turboprop EP-3E 50 miles south of the island in international airspace. The EP-3E is of a design 40 years old.
But China's People's Daily told readers the U.S. letter admitted wrongdoing.
"In the letter, the U.S. government said 'very sorry' for the incident of a U.S. military reconnaissance plane ramming into and destroying a Chinese military aircraft," the People's Daily reported in its English-language edition.
The newspaper paraphrased remarks it attributed to Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. "Tang also emphasized that ever since the U.S. military reconnaissance plane rammed into and destroyed a Chinese military plane, the Chinese side has all along handled this incident with calmness and restraint and in accordance with international law and the provisions of relevant laws of China."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not release a verbatim translation of the letter, but paraphrased it for a public statement.
At the U.S. State Department, a senior official said: "How [Chinese officials] translate it and how they spin it is up to them. What difference does it make?"
U.S. officials said the letter was a time-honored way of settling diplomatic disputes: Agree on selected words as a way for both sides to save face, and leave the parties free to publicly interpret their meaning.
There was no U.S. demand that Washington approve China's translation, meaning Beijing was free to liberally interpret the White House's words.
"The U.S. side must not object to this Chinese translation or the deal falls apart," said a Pentagon official who asked not to be named.
The official's analysis states that the Chinese interpreted the phrase "very sorry" as "qianyi."
"The Chinese term for the English 'sorry' is 'qianyi,' something that can be translated as apology or regret, but implies a deficiency in the U.S. side… . It is not as neutral a term as 'regret' 'yihan' that Bush used the first time," the official said. "There is some creativity in the Chinese translation."
But it could have been worse for the United States. China's official statements did not say the letter contained the word "daoqian," a formal apology that accepts blame. This was an early demand of the Chinese to win the Americans' release.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing last night released to the Associated Press the embassy's Chinese translation of the administration's letter.
This version does not use the stronger word "qianyi" found in official Chinese statements, the AP reported.
Instead, the embassy says, Mr. Bush was "feichang baoqian," or extremely sorry, for the plane's landing without Chinese clearance. The president expressed "feichang wanxi," or extreme sympathy, for the family of the dead pilot, Wang Wei.
"I think Beijing increasingly will try to portray the letter as an apology," said Rick Fisher, a China analyst at the Jamestown Foundation. "I'm heartened by American spokesmen insisting it is not an apology. These different interpretations are going to persist."
Mr. Fisher said China backed away from its demand for an outright apology in part because Chinese President Jiang Zemin is scheduled to meet this week with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a staunch U.S. foe.
"If I were in the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, I would want American television screens dominated by returning U.S. service members, not Jiang Zemin [and Mr. Castro] toasting each other in Havana," he said.
Mr. Fisher called the Bush letter "a very tortured effort to express sympathy short of an apology necessary to achieve a relatively quick solution."
Bill Gertz and Tom Carter contributed to this report.

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