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Mike Chinoy: Chinese reaction in the U.S. spy plane stand-off

Mike Chinoy
Mike Chinoy, senior Asia correspondent  

Mike Chinoy is a senior Asia correspondent and is based in CNN's Hong Kong bureau. Chinoy is responsible for CNN's coverage of news events in China and the surrounding region, including Hong Kong, North Korea and Taiwan.

Q: How would you read the signals coming out of Beijing just now?

CHINOY: There are some signals that suggest that China too wants to keep this incident from spiraling out of control. It should be pointed out that the Chinese decision making process is a slow one. Two and a half days before things begin to get moving really isn't a very long time. If you look back to the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, it took two and a half days before a top Chinese official went on television to give Beijing's first formal high level response, and things do now appear to be moving. A final decision on how Beijing intends to resolve this issue would have to be taken by the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo. There are differing groups, moderates in favor of greater engagement with the U.S., the military and intelligence factions which are more suspicious, and they are going to have to hammer out some agreement among themselves over how they want to move ahead.

Nonetheless, despite some of the critical comments in the official Chinese statements blaming the U.S., the language has still been relatively temperate, it hasn't been shrill. The Chinese have gone to some lengths to ensure so far that their criticism of Washington does not create a situation that existed during the Belgrade bombing, where crowds gathered and there was violence around the US embassy in Beijing. So the Chinese seem to want to score as many diplomatic points as they can, playing it for all it is worth, but not let it evolve into a full blown crisis.

Q: That's what you're hearing from the Chinese officials, what are you hearing from people on the streets, even in Hong Kong, a place that is so familiar with the West?

CHINOY: Public opinion in China generally, and I think to some degree here in Hong Kong, is very sympathetic to the Chinese side and suspicious of the United States. After all, one should not ignore the fact that from the Chinese perspective, there has been a pretty fundamental change in the U.S. approach to China since the Bush administration came to office. Mr. Bush campaigned promising to change the U.S. relationship with China from one of strategic partner, that was the term that the Clinton administration used, to a competitor. Bush officials have talked about the need to give more military aid to Taiwan. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has talked about shifting the focus of the U.S. military in terms of thinking about future conflicts from Europe to Asia. The U.S. has halted dialogue with North Korea, which China greatly favored, and of course, there is the missile defense system which China is bitterly opposed to because it fears it will neutralize Beijing's missile leverage over Taiwan. So there are a lot of things that China sees in recent months as being U.S. moves away from a friendly relationship, and one of the messages in China's very deliberate way it's played this, is that if the U.S. doesn't want to treat China as a partner anymore, it cannot expect China to behave as a partner. And yet at the same time, there is some movement, so China is trying to send mixed signals: it's not happy with the Bush administration, but it doesn't want to see this blow up

Q: So from your standpoint, covering Asia, covering China for as long as you have, taking into consideration China's character and personality, how far are they willing to take this? How likely would it be it be that they would go as far as to put these U.S. crew members on trial, possibly for spying? How far would they go in terms of dismantling that U.S. plane and stealing that technology?

CHINOY: It's always hard to predict on matters concerning China, but most of the analysts I've spoken with feel that it is most unlikely that the crew members would be put on trial. Rather, the Chinese, I suspect, and other people I've been speaking with about all this agree, in the next few days we'll probably move towards releasing those crew members -- they are not of much further diplomatic use to China. The fate of the aircraft itself, though, is a different issue, and it may well be that the scenario we see is that China asks for some kind of U.S. statement of regret or of explanation that will give Beijing the diplomatic cover to let the crew members go, and then they'll begin the much more protracted negotiations over the aircraft. That's where you might get into issues of compensation or more formal apology, and those kinds of things. We'll have to wait and see, but still, the signals are that China, while it sees this as a diplomatic windfall in terms of scoring points against the U.S., doesn't want to see this really blow up.

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The Pentagon
U.S. Navy
Navy Fact File: EP-3E ORION (ARIES II) Aircraft
U.S. Department of Defense
Government of China (in Chinese)
U.S. Department of State
Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the U.S.A.
Government Information Office, Republic of China

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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