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A Tale Of 'Two Very Sorries' Redux
Far Eastern Economic Review | March 21, 2002 | John Keefe, Alexandria, Virginia

Posted on 03/14/2002 7:17:25 AM PST by Stand Watch Listen

A year ago, the United States and China appeared on the brink of a new cold war. This is an insider's account, exclusive to the REVIEW, of how the crisis was ended

(For 11 days in April last year, China and the United States seemed to be on collision course. China's official media whipped up popular sentiment against American "high-handedness" and hostility against China gripped the American public.

The cause was a collision at about 9:15 a.m. on April 1 between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft on a mission to collect signals intelligence and a Chinese F-8 fighter. After the collision over international waters southeast of China's Hainan island, the Chinese aircraft broke up and crashed into the sea. Its pilot was lost. The EP-3's pilot regained control of his badly damaged aircraft and made an emergency landing on Hainan. Chinese authorities detained the 24 crew and U.S.-China relations were plunged into turmoil.

It was the first major foreign-policy challenge for George W. Bush's administration that came into office describing China as a "strategic competitor" rather than "partner."

A letter from then-U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher, in which he twice professed the U.S. to be "very sorry," finally defused the crisis and secured the release of the aircrew on April 12. Despite China's demand for an end to U.S. surveillance flights off its coast, they resumed in mid-May. The aircraft was returned to the U.S. in pieces starting in early June.

In the following article, John Keefe, then special assistant to Prueher and now an analyst at The CNA Corporation, a U.S. Navy think-tank in Alexandria, Virginia, provides an exclusive insider's account of how the aircrew's release was won. He shares the drama of how a carefully negotiated solution nearly went awry when the Chinese side appeared to try to pull away from a commitment to let the crew go immediately after the delivery of Prueher's letter.

His story shows that the U.S. and China had the elements of a deal as early as April 5, the day after Chinese President Jiang Zemin left for a 12-day tour of Latin America. He also reveals that the U.S. was able to respond quickly to Chinese demands because negotiations over the crew's release were in the hands of a very small number of officials. China hawks in the Pentagon and the vice-president's office who may have objected to the compromise of the "letter of two very sorries" were not in evidence.

The September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. pushed the EP-3 incident into the background. Beijing quickly gave rhetorical and diplomatic support to the war on terrorism. This led to Bush travelling twice to China in four months. He now embraces a "candid, constructive and cooperative" relationship with Beijing--though officials in Washington warn quietly that the administration has postponed, not cancelled, its internal debate about whether to view China as a partner or as a foe. -- Susan V. Lawrence, Beijing)

We in the United States embassy in Beijing learned of the collision in a series of late-morning telephone calls on April 1 from the U.S. Pacific Command. We were told that the EP-3 and one of two Chinese F-8 fighters had collided, the EP-3 had made an emergency landing on Hainan island, and the aircraft had been immediately surrounded by armed Chinese soldiers.

We didn't know how the collision had happened. We didn't know where the crew was or whether any of them were injured. We also did not know how badly damaged the aircraft was, whether the crew had been able to destroy sensitive equipment on board before landing, or whether Chinese military personnel had boarded the aircraft.

Eleven long days later, the crew left China for home via Guam on a chartered Boeing 737. Their release was the product of disciplined crisis management and creative thinking on the U.S. side, and of eventual pragmatism on the Chinese side. It involved many meetings at which the two sides inched toward compromise while learning surprising things about each other's priorities.

For the U.S. side, among the biggest surprises were the Chinese government's apparent indifference to the facts surrounding the collision, and its apparent lack of concern about international procedures that, in an emergency situation, allow one nation's aircraft to land on the territory of another without permission. Even today, it is puzzling that the Chinese government did not seem concerned about how its handling of the incident might shape regional perceptions.

Several hours after the collision, while we in the embassy were trying without success to reach officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defence, the U.S. Pacific Command made the incident public in a brief, neutrally worded press release posted on its Web site. It said there had been "contact" between the EP-3 and a Chinese fighter aircraft that had intercepted it. The U.S. Pacific Command was careful not to assign blame.

Our first clear indication that China was not going to handle the collision as a simple accident came shortly after 9:30 p.m. on April 1, when our ambassador, Joseph Prueher, finally succeeded in meeting with a Chinese official to discuss the incident. Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong, who served as Prueher's main interlocutor throughout the crisis, insisted that the EP-3 and the F-8 had been flying on parallel courses 120 metres apart when the EP-3 had banked sharply to the left and rammed the F-8. He blamed the U.S. and demanded that we accept full responsibility.

Drawing on his years as a navy pilot, Prueher immediately characterized this version of events as "physically impossible." In his view, if the EP-3 had manoeuvred as Zhou had described, then it would have passed behind the F-8.

But the Chinese government did not seem interested in a rational assessment of the facts. Even before Prueher, a retired admiral, and Zhou had finished their meeting, the Foreign Ministry issued China's first public statement on the incident, repeating the version of the collision offered by Zhou and holding the U.S. responsible.

Over the next three days, with the Chinese side demanding an apology and the administration making it clear that there could be no apology, the embassy team felt an impasse looming. The Chinese authorities eventually granted our defence attaché, Brig.-Gen. Neal Sealock, access to the crew in the early minutes of April 4, nearly 63 hours after the collision. But the Chinese side still showed no signs of being willing to let the crew go. By late afternoon on April 4, we felt increasingly concerned that the situation might degenerate into a hostage crisis.

What broke the impasse was a letter that Secretary of State Colin Powell forwarded to Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen early on April 5 Beijing time. It proposed a series of steps leading to resolution of the incident. It also included a statement of regret regarding the apparent loss of the Chinese pilot.

Hours earlier, Powell had told the U.S. media in Washington of his "regret" about the missing pilot. Those statements changed for the better the tenor of the ambassador's subsequent discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.

On April 5, using the Powell letter as a road map, Prueher and Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou worked out a five-step plan. Step one involved the U.S. agreeing to a Chinese request to make public in China the paragraph in Powell's letter expressing his regret at the loss of the pilot. Powell agreed to this two hours after Prueher and Zhou met.

Step two called for the ambassador to sign and deliver an official letter to Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan expressing sentiment about the loss of life and regret about the U.S. aircraft entering Chinese airspace. Steps three, four and five were the release of the crew, a meeting to discuss prevention of future accidents and the return of the aircraft.

On the Chinese side, pragmatism had won out. Chinese officials' attitudes continued to range from hard-edged ambivalence to hostility. But the same officials also repeatedly stressed that the incident should not derail the U.S.-China relationship.

From April 6-11, Prueher and his team, in meetings usually held twice a day, exchanged draft texts of the Prueher letter with Foreign Ministry officials. This document eventually came to be known as the "letter of the two 'very sorries'." The Chinese side wanted an apology for the loss of the Chinese pilot and for the EP-3 landing without permission. Besides the release of the crew and the return of the aircraft, we wanted a letter that was accurate, did not apologize for the collision or the emergency landing, did not impede President Bush's ability to conduct U.S.-China relations, and did not undermine U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

Notably, all the meetings between Prueher and Foreign Ministry officials were conducted in English, and all drafts of the letter were in English too. The U.S. could respond quickly to Chinese requests for wording changes because after each negotiating session, Prueher spoke by telephone directly to either Powell or Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who were in direct contact with the president and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Because Powell and Armitage were available 24 hours a day, Prueher often requested a new meeting within 75 minutes of leaving the previous session.

In the final agreed version of the Prueher letter, the ambassador said the U.S. was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot suffered by the Chinese people and the pilot's family, and "very sorry" for the aircraft's entering of Chinese airspace and landing without verbal clearance. The Chinese government agreed to release the crew immediately after Prueher delivered the letter.

But on April 11, the day that Prueher was due to hand the letter to Foreign Minister Tang, the Chinese side made several last-minute demands. They wanted Prueher to provide a signed copy of the letter before the meeting. They also wanted us to sign a "memorandum of transfer" shifting custody of the aircrew back to the U.S. This document repeated language regarding U.S. responsibility for the collision already deemed unacceptable to the U.S. side. Moreover, Chinese officials would not say when the crew would be released, nor whether Foreign Minister Tang would say in his meeting with the ambassador that the aircrew was free to go. From the embassy's perspective, the Chinese side was backing away from what it had already agreed.

With the aircrew's release hanging in the balance, Prueher held the line on the Chinese demands, and levied some demands of his own. Embassy personnel informed the Chinese side that rather than provide a signed copy of the letter in advance of the meeting, Prueher would provide an unsigned copy of the letter with a cover note saying he would present a signed copy at the meeting.

We told the Chinese that an embassy official would sign a "memorandum of transfer" only if the words in it were consistent with the negotiated text of the letter. We also demanded assurances that the EP-3 aircrew would be released within hours of Prueher's meeting with the foreign minister and that Tang would say in the meeting that the aircrew was free to go. Absent those assurances, we said, there would be no meeting that day.

Finally, we advised the Chinese side that if there were any Chinese media present at the ambassador's meeting with Tang, Prueher would leave without sitting down and without handing over the letter.

The Chinese side's eyes were probably on the script for the Chinese national news broadcast at 7 p.m.--a script that did not allow for the last-minute cancellation of the ambassador's meeting with Tang. With the two sides essentially satisfied, if not entirely pleased, with the set of steps to resolve the incident, the Chinese side went forward with the meeting on April 11 under the terms that both sides had previously agreed. The crew was released at 6 a.m. the next day.

TOPICS: Editorial; Foreign Affairs; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: china; chinastuff; ep3; prueher; taiwan; zanupf

1 posted on 03/14/2002 7:17:25 AM PST by Stand Watch Listen
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To: Stand Watch Listen
In restrospect, I think Bush handled this well. He inherited a disastrous situation. Clinton not only committed treason with China, selling top secrets for campaign cash, he put us in the position of kowtowing to the Chinese and of asking how high we should jump whenever they made a demand on us. It was very hard to change that relationship without risking war.

Since then, I believe the Chinese have learned that the US under George Bush must be respected, and that they cannot expect us to jump to every threat. In other words, we are not a paper tiger.

China and Islam are our two most dangerous potential enemies in the twenty-first century. China may not emerge as an open enemy, but to avoid it we must treat them fairly but firmly. Otherwise, they will continue to try to take every opening we offer when we show weakness or lack of resolve.

I suspect that continued war with Islam is inevitable. It is better to conduct it on our terms than theirs. War with China is not inevitable, but it can be avoided only if we show great firmness and prudence now. If we had continued to be weak as we were under clinton, and even under Nixon and Bush, not to speak of Carter, China would have slowly moved into the vacuum, into Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Taiwan. Since assuming office, however, Bush has already changed the relationship in a very hopeful way.

2 posted on 03/14/2002 7:35:02 AM PST by Cicero
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To: *China stuff;*China_stuff;Black Jade
index bump
3 posted on 03/14/2002 8:01:32 AM PST by Fish out of Water
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