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Analysis: Behind the scenes in Beijing's corridors of power

Beijing has been scene to days of secret debates as senior officials hammered out the diplomacy of apology  

In this story:

Laying down the law

Veneer of toughness

Breaking the impasse

Hawkish remarks

Face-saving compromise


(CNN) -- They've already called it Beijing's first major diplomatic victory in the new millennium.

How Chinese President Jiang Zemin has "taught Bush Jr. a lesson" while leaving the framework of long-term Sino-U.S. cooperation intact is being touted by Chinese cadres and diplomats as a case of clever, cool-headed brinksmanship that will be studied by Chinese foreign policy students for decades.

The highlights of 11 days of tense behind-the-scenes decision-making in the Chinese capital has been pieced together after talking to Beijing sources close to the diplomatic apparatus and think-tank members familiar with Jiang's style of policy-making.

Moments after the collision of the EP-3E spy plane and the Chinese jetfighter on April 1, the Politburo Standing Committee met in emergency session in the Zhongnanhai Party Headquarters in Beijing.

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    Senior generals and officials from the Ministry of State Security also sat in on the deliberations.

    Jiang led the discussion in his capacity as the Head of the party's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

    Vice Premier Qian Qichen, a vice-head of the leading group, also spoke at length.

    Laying down the law

    Opening the meeting Jiang very quickly laid down three principles.

    Firstly, the leadership must protect itself from criticism by ordinary Chinese by not appearing weak before the "hawkish" new Bush administration. Yet, at the same time, there should be no repeat of the anti-U.S. demonstrations after the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

    Secondly, Jiang indicated Beijing must "teach Bush a lesson" early on in his administration. This, Jiang said, was essential to instilling some humility in the new president, who had infuriated Beijing by his statements on Taiwan and on deploying anti-missile systems.

    Thirdly, Jiang said, the negotiations over the spy plane and the crew should not last more than two weeks.

    He said long-term relations with the superpower must be maintained. And to this end, the president indicated Beijing should take a flexible line in finding a face-saving formula for both sides.

    Before the session ended, the Politburo Standing Committee asked major media to come up with commentaries attacking U.S. "neo-hegemonism" and extolling the patriotism of the defense forces.

    Yet orders were also given to all colleges to stop students from holding demonstrations.

    Shortly afterwards, Jiang, Qian and their aides hammered out a so-called "diplomacy of apology."

    In essence, Beijing would refrain from high-profile actions that might provoke a military confrontation with the U.S.

    Yet Washington would be given the tough message that the crew would only be released after a formal expression of apology to the Chinese people.

    Jiang and Qian told their aides that Washington would find it humiliating for a superpower to express an apology.

    But if Beijing was successful in getting Washington to at least express deep feelings of regret and contrition, this would be a humbling experience for the Bush team -- and this episode would make it easier for both countries to settle on a "fair and equal" set of rules for mutual engagement afterwards.

    Jiang was so confident of his strategy he brushed aside suggestions from some aides that he put off his tour of South America.

    Veneer of toughness

    Before Jiang and Qian left the capital early last Wednesday, Jiang had a long session with Vice President Hu Jintao, who was put in charge of an emergency team to handle the crisis.

    Jiang repeated the line of taking a flexible approach under the veneer of toughness.

    He indicated to Hu and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan that on the surface, Beijing should adopt the posture of no compromise on the issue of a full and formal apology.

    However, he also pointed out if Washington were willing to demonstrate sincerity and contrition -- Beijing should leave a way out for Bush.

    Domestically, Jiang asked Hu to take advantage of the situation to start a nation-wide patriotic campaign whose theme would be to celebrate Beijing's new-found strength on the world stage.

    However, he cautioned Hu not to let this get out of hand; above all, there would be no demonstration outside U.S. missions and no intimidation of foreign communities.

    In the tense two to three days after Jiang's departure, Chinese diplomats and cadres expressed impatience over what they perceived to be Bush's lack of diplomatic experience and "bumbling bluntness."

    "Bush started from too high a plane in his first remarks on the incident," one Chinese diplomatic scholar said. "There was no mention of the Chinese people at all, and particularly no mention of the downed pilot. It is pure hegemonism -- and he has to pay for it."

    Breaking the impasse

    The emergency team checked with the traveling president and Vice Premier Qian frequently. Jiang and Qian suggested that Beijing should drop some hints to Washington as steps for them to climb down without losing face.

    President Jiang left clear instructions to his deputies on how to handle the standoff  

    To break the impasse, Chinese officials began floating balloons in the form of alternative expressions the Bush team could use to circumvent a full-fledged apology.

    In an interview with CNN, Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Yang Jiechi pointed out the U.S. should at least say sorry after doing harm to China.

    And while meeting the press in Chile, Jiang said it was normal for two people who had bumped into each other to say "excuse me."

    The first response from Washington was a statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell last Wednesday expressing "regrets" over the loss of the Chinese pilot Wang Wei. This was followed by a similar note of regrets issued by Bush a day later.

    The Chinese Foreign Ministry promptly responded by saying this was a "step in the right direction." But it insisted only a full apology would do.

    Then came a near-breakthrough. Last Sunday, Powell switched to the linguistically pregnant expression "sorry."

    However, the American negotiators, as well as international media, were surprised that this expression of good will was greeted by near-silence by Chinese officials and the media. For nearly two days, the official news agency Xinhua did not even run a short dispatch on it.

    Hawkish remarks

    Instead, the Chinese press on Monday and Tuesday was dominated by hawkish remarks by generals such as Defense Minister Chi Haotian.

    Western and Asian commentators began saying that Jiang was under heavy pressure from hardliners, particularly People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers.

    However, while several aggressive PLA officers did try to urge Jiang and Hu to take a tougher line, there was no question that Jiang was in control throughout.

    The apparent snub of Powell's overture was just a case of traditional Chinese negotiation tactics -- to squeeze the opponent, and to squeeze him some more.

    Frantic diplomacy in Beijing and Washington on Monday and Tuesday, however, proved to be fruitful. Washington indicated it might go slightly beyond "sorry" -- but not by much, and certainly not to the level of a full apology.

    Hu's emergency team sought the advice of Jiang, then in Argentina. And the supremo indicated he might accept something stronger than "sorry."

    The turn-around in the bitter diplomatic slugfest took place on Tuesday afternoon Beijing time when the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, Sun Yuxi, lauded Powell's "I am sorry" statement as a "move in the right direction."

    What was most significant was the Chinese translation Sun used for "sorry": baoqian.

    Baoqian has the connotation of an expression of contrition and remorse - and it is considered by many Chinese to be just one rung down the philological ladder from apology, or daoqian.

    Then, before the sun began to break through the clouds on Wednesday morning practically all official papers and websites were giving wide play to Powell's expression of baoqian.

    It is understood that Beijing was preparing public opinion for accepting a close equivalent of daoqian.

    Face-saving compromise

    The final solution was a testimony to pragmatism for both sides, even though the Chinese were convinced they had dominated the negotiation from day one -- and had done a masterful job crafting a face-saving compromise for their opponent.

    In the letter sent to the Chinese Foreign Minister Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Preuher relayed Bush and Powell's "sincere regrets" for the missing pilot and aircraft.

    Preuher also said the U.S. was "very sorry" for their loss and "very sorry" that the surveillance plane had entered Chinese airspace after the collision.

    Certainly, few Chinese except linguistic and legal purists would disagree that "very sorry" was a passable substitute for "apology."

    Moreover, throughout the diplomatic exchanges, while the American expressions of "regrets" and being "sorry" were meant in most instances only for pilot Wang, Chinese officials and media often let on that they were meant for the whole incident.

    The Zhongnanhai party headquarters was brightly lit all Wednesday night as Jiang's supporters celebrated what they called the resounding victory of the "diplomatic strategist extraordinaire."

    The China Daily website even reported that Jiang was able to "foresee an 'adequate solution' to the plane standoff" by having apparently predicted the breakthrough a day earlier.

    While talking to the press in Uruguay on Tuesday, Jiang said: "Given the important roles of our countries, I think we should find an adequate solution to this problem."

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    USCINCPAC Homepage
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    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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