- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

BEIJING Even after the end of an 11-day standoff, it is not clear to American diplomats whether the decision to release the crew of a U.S. surveillance plane came from the Chinese president, his political rivals or the generals of the People's Liberation Army.

"It's one of the questions that we're stumbling about a bit trying to clarify," said Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the U.S. Naval War College.

American officials spent a lot of time trying to figure out the Chinese decision-making process, senior U.S. diplomats say. The confusion itself is a kind of victory for the Chinese communist system, which sees secrecy and intrigue as part of its armor.

After the U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter on the morning of April 1, Ambassador Joseph Prueher spent much of the day trying in vain to contact officials of China's defense and foreign ministries, according to U.S. diplomats.

They say the first response came nearly 12 hours later, when Mr. Prueher was allowed to meet with an assistant foreign minister. The ambassador complained publicly that three days after the incident, Chinese leaders still weren't involved in diplomatic contacts.

Complicating matters for Chinese leaders was the issue of reliable information. They have acknowledged that they don't trust what reaches them through their own system. After a schoolhouse explosion in southern China killed dozens of children in March, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji sent his own six-member squad of handpicked agents to find out what really happened.

U.S. officials suggest the Chinese military's account to civilian leaders in the early hours of the crisis that the U.S. plane was to blame for the collision was wrong, possibly on purpose. Washington blames the Chinese pilot, who they say flew dangerously close to the slower, propeller-driven American plane.

James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to Beijing in 1989-91, said "reliable people" told him Chinese commanders falsified their report that the Navy pilot veered into the fighter. The Chinese pilot is missing and presumed dead.

"This went to the top, to President Jiang Zemin, who then demands the apology. I think the military put him in a very tough position," Mr. Lilley said Wednesday on PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

Chinese officials said in the first days after the collision that they wanted a prompt settlement, but wouldn't let diplomats see the air crew. That led to speculation that the Americans held on Hainan island in the South China Sea were in the hands of military officials who refused access.

"It does raise questions about how and when the top civilian leaders are able to insert themselves into the decision-making process," said Scott Snyder, an East Asian security analyst at the Asia Foundation in Seoul.

The military added to suspicions that it was blocking a settlement. A report in its own leading newspaper quoted the defense minister, who is an army general, as saying the military wouldn't let Washington "shirk responsibility" for the collision.

"The People's Liberation Army does not agree to it. The Chinese people don't agree to it," the minister was quoted as telling the wife of the Chinese pilot.

The account in the Liberation Army Daily obscured the issue further by saying the minister was acting on the orders of Mr. Jiang.

Mr. Pollack said the delay seen by the Americans may be just the normal working of the Chinese system confronted by an unprecedented shock.

"The fact that this was a process that proved, in American time calculations, protracted doesn't mean there was infighting in Beijing," he said.

But time wasn't on Mr. Jiang's side.

His agenda is more intense than ever, loaded with events that demand attention and energy that Beijing couldn't afford to squander on Cold War-style jousting with Washington.

Beijing is trying to persuade the Bush administration not to sell rival Taiwan the advanced Aegis naval radar system. Its diplomats are fighting a motion to censure China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

At the same time, China is trying to wrap up talks on joining the World Trade Organization and to land the Olympics for Beijing. A vote is scheduled July 13 on the site of the 2008 Summer Games.

In the midst of the crisis, Mr. Jiang left on a long-scheduled six-nation tour of six Latin American nations. With all of them having votes at the Human Rights Commission, he couldn't cancel.

Throughout his 12-day, six nation visit to Latin America, Mr. Jiang has said little about the diplomatic dispute over the April 1 collision of a U.S. surveillance plane with a Chinese fighter jet. China released the 24 crew members of the jet on Thursday, but the two countries are still trading blame ahead of talks this week to deal with repercussions of the crisis.

And personally, Mr. Jiang is under pressure to focus on preparing for China's annual leadership meeting this summer, and then a party congress next year that will start the process of choosing his successor.

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