- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

The Bush administration expressed "regret" yesterday over the death of a Chinese fighter pilot, but stopped short of acquiescing to China's demand for a full apology as the tense standoff entered its fourth day.
The United States asked for a second meeting with its 24 servicemen and women, this time without the presence of Chinese military officials. There was no immediate reply from China, which continued to snub U.S. demands for prompt release of the Americans.
President Bush kept his silence on the issue yesterday, following two days in which he issued measured but firm calls for the Americans to be freed. The administration appeared to be trying to satisfy China with conciliatory talk about the lost Chinese pilot.
"We regret that the Chinese plane did not get down safely, and we regret the loss of the life of that Chinese pilot," said Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The Chinese appeared unmoved by the overture. The communist nation's state-run press stepped up criticism of America and the Chinese foreign minister accused the United States of "arrogance".
Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi blamed the Americans for Sunday's collision between the Chinese jet and a U.S. reconnaissance plane, offering an odd explanation of how the collision came about.
"The U.S. side actually broke the normal procedure and made a sudden turn," Mr. Yang said on CNN before Mr. Powell's remarks. "The airplane approached the Chinese side and caused the destruction of the Chinese airplane and the disappearance of the Chinese pilot.
"And then it had enough time for telecommunication to inform the Chinese side, but it didn't. And without China's permission, it intruded into China's airspace and then landed at a Chinese airfield."
A senior defense official told The Washington Times the crew appeared to have succeeded in destroying sensitive equipment on board the airplane before making the emergency landing.
However, he said, because of limited access to the crew, "we don't really have a clear picture of what happened."
Asked whether the United States had stopped surveillance flights of China, the official said: "We fly surveillance flights routinely and those occur very often."
Asked whether Mr. Bush is taking a sufficiently forceful stand against the Chinese, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said: "This is a sensitive time as these diplomatic events unfold.
"Because it is a sensitive time, there are moments in diplomacy, there are times in international relations where the less said, the most productive."
With the standoff now more than 100 hours old, there is growing concern that the 21 men and three women being detained on a Chinese island will soon be regarded as hostages.
"We need to move on," Mr. Powell said. "We need to bring this to a resolution, and we're using every avenue available to us to talk to the Chinese side, to exchange explanations and move on."
A senior State Department official told the Associated Press yesterday that Mr. Powell had sent a letter to Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen emphasizing the importance the United States attaches to the release of the 24 Americans.
He gave the letter to Mr. Yang for transmittal to Mr. Qian. Mr. Powell told the ambassador that the United States seeks full access to the crew and emphasized the need to resolve the issue, the senior official said, asking not to be identified.
The Chinese made clear they are not yet ready to resolve the issue. Asked how long the standoff will continue, Mr. Yang said: "I think maybe you should ask some of your countrymen how long it should go on.
"This is a very serious incident and the Chinese side has every right to carry out an investigation. So the crew members are in China because the investigation is going on."
Meanwhile, U.S. and Chinese officials held high-level meetings both in Washington and Beijing to resolve the standoff. U.S. officials stopped short of calling the crewmen prisoners, instead using the word detainees.
"We consider these people detained they're clearly not free to go and we don't have free access to them," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We certainly would have liked to see them by now."
Instead of intensifying calls for release of the Americans, U.S. officials yesterday focused on soothing the Chinese. Though not apologizing, U.S. spokesmen acknowledged they have become more "sympathetic."
"As the fate of the Chinese pilot becomes clearer, we're saying probably more clearly that we understand and sympathize with the plight of the Chinese family and regret the loss of life," Mr. Boucher said. "So in some ways there's an evolution, but not a breakthrough."
U.S. officials were heartened that the Chinese have dropped their accusation, at least for now, that the collision had occurred over Chinese airspace. "It took place in an area very close to the airspace of China," Mr. Yang said. "Of course, airplanes can fly in that area on the high sea. They enjoy freedom."
The Chinese continued their claim to inspection rights to the American plane. "This airplane is your sovereign property if it's in the United States," Mr. Yang said. "But … it intruded into China's airspace and then landed in China. Of course, it's not a sovereign entity any more, according to international law. Of course, it has no immunity. Of course, China has the right to do all necessary investigation in connection with the incident."
The State Department disagreed. "We think quite clearly that international law provides that this kind of aircraft, state aircraft, carry with them sovereign immunity, including in circumstances like this," Mr. Boucher said.
The standoff was complicated further when China announced yesterday it was formally charging an American-based scholar with espionage. The Bush administration had been lobbying for the return of the scholar, who is a U.S. permanent resident and whose son and husband are U.S. citizens. She has been detained by the Chinese for weeks.
Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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