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How Would a U.S. Apology to China Affect International Relations?

Aired April 6, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: movement in the surveillance plane standoff; just a few hours ago Chinese officials allowed U.S. officials to meet for the second time with the detained U.S. Navy air crew; another meeting with them is expected tomorrow. And a Chinese fighter pilot who says he witnessed the collision speaks out, placing the blame squarely on the American pilot.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Who do you think is responsible for this collision incident?

ZHAO YU, CHINESE FIGHTER PILOT (through translator): The U.S. side is fully responsible for this collision. It was directly caused by the collision of the U.S. plane veering at a wide angle toward our plane, making it impossible for our plane to avoid it.


ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Chinese fighter pilot Zhao Yu made his debut on Chinese television. He describes what began as a routine tracking mission for him and his comrade Wang Wei. Zhao was in one fighter jet, Wang in another. Zhao emphatically insists the U.S. plane violated flying rules and caused the crash.


ZHAO (through translator): we were flying at the same speed and the same direction as the U.S. spy plane. Our planes were on the inner side of Hainan and the U.S. plane was on the outer side. Two minutes later, the U.S. plane suddenly swerved at a wide angle toward our direction and collided over the plane Wang Wei was flying. I saw the nose and left wing of the U.S. plane bump into Wang Wei's plane, and the left outer propeller of the U.S. plane's left wing smashed the vertical tail surface of Wang Wei's plane.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COSSACK: The U.S. pilot has not been debriefed yet, but based on Chinese pilots' version of events, the Chinese continue to demand an apology. Now, what would an apology mean for Beijing?

Joining us today from Ann Arbor, Michigan, former director for asian affairs for the National Security Council, Ken Lieberthal. And here in Washington: Tor Wallen (ph); Thomas McInerney, retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General; Bruce Dickson, Asian studies professor. And in the back row: Alex Hesz (ph), and Christian Myron (ph).

Ken, I want to go right to you; you've just returned from Beijing. Tell us what the mood is there and tell us how things are progressing, in your opinion.

KEN LIEBERTHAL, POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR: Well, the mood in Beijing, on the street, is great concern over this, the sense that the U.S. is bullying China again; after all, our plane is right off of their coast monitoring their telecommunications and so forth. And what people said to me was, gee whiz, you're so far away, why do you have to send planes along our coast and why are you so tough on us?

I think that the reality is that the Chinese government realizes that they've got to find a way out of this. We're now in very intensive negotiations with them. They have painted themselves somewhat into a corner here because they've said that they require an apology, they require a statement that the blame is wholly ours and they are wholly blameless. Well in reality, this is probably an accident caused in no small part because a Chinese pilot misjudged and violated some rules of how this game is played.

So I think that we are now working with them to find a way to give them an exit where they don't have to fully back off of their demands, but we'll find some wording and we'll set up a joint investigative process, we'll express regret for the loss of life in terms of their pilot and they will release our crew.

This still isn't a done deal. We still have to work with them on it, so things could go wrong. But as of now, I'd be at least cautiously optimistic that this will wrap up within three days or so.

COSSACK: Bruce, in terms of the Chinese culture and in terms of the use of the word "apology," what does that word mean to the Chinese, and why is it so important to them?

BRUCE DICKSON, ASIAN STUDIES PROFESSOR: Well, you know, in the U.S. we apologize for almost anything. We bump into somebody, we apology, and so on. For the Chinese, an apology is more of an act of contrition, an acting -- acceptance of culpability for the action and asking forgiveness as a way of getting leniency from, in this case, the government.

The U.S. is unwilling to do that because, as Ken mentioned, there has been an expression of regret for the loss of the pilot that both Secretary Powell and, later, President Bush gave. But to go beyond that into an apology would be accepting the blame and the guilt and responsibility for the event, which we don't think is warranted. COSSACK: Ken, could there be legal ramifications, if you will, from the use of the word "apology"? For example, if the Americans -- the United States did apologize, could that apology be used by the Chinese later on as a -- for example, is it like a plea of guilty or an admission of guilt?

LIEBERTHAL: I think it would certainly open up the question of compensation, and China may well choose to press that if we admit that we were culpable in this incident. So I'm quite sure that our Department of Defense lawyers are sitting there saying, you cannot say anything that communicates that we actually caused this accident. And so we'll have to work around that in the verbiage we use.

COSSACK: So Bruce, how is it, then, that we negotiate in a way where understanding that the word "apology" means culturally so much to the Chinese in this situation, and recognizing the fact that they have -- their pilot is deceased. How do you negotiate around that kind of phrase?

DICKSON: Well, that's the difficulty because -- in part because President Jiang Zemin, China's head of state right away went on the record demanding an apology as a way of getting out of this. So he's got a lot of his own prestige and face on the line. It's unfortunate that he did that because now it will be difficult to kind of wiggle out of that after demanding an apology, and the U.S. won't give it to him.

In addition, if we apologize for the flight, that means that the premise for allowing flights to continue in the future would also be undercut. So if we apologize for this flight, we wouldn't be able to send other flights in the future.

COSSACK: General, historically there's nothing new about the fact that this flight -- this American flight was where it was and was doing what it did, is there?

LT. GEN. THOMAS MCINERNEY, U.S. AIR FORCE (RETIRED): Roger, we've been doing this since 1950. And I agree with Bruce and Ken; if we apologize, it means we shouldn't be in international airspace and we shouldn't continue these very important, what I call deterrent missions. These missions ensure stability in the region.

And the reason I say that is, is the more we're aware of what they're doing, particularly around Taiwan, the more of an opportunity we have to quietly and diplomatically let the Chinese know -- if they, in fact, were making preparations to do something towards Taiwan -- military action -- that we were aware of it and that we would not accept that. And I think we've said that.

So they're very important missions, and I think, by pointing out -- apologizing, then you give up an awful lot, in addition to saying, yes, we were wrong. And we'll find out if we were wrong, and I think we can talk a little later about how to do that.

COSSACK: General, I think many people don't understand how an accident like this could happen. Here you have a Chinese jet probably half, again, as fast as that American plane -- the American plane certainly wasn't a very quick plane -- four-propeller-driven plane. How can an accident like this happen?

MCINERNEY: Well, it shouldn't. And we set the protocols with the Russians in the old former Soviet Union that eliminated these opportunities to have accidents. What happened was we know that this squadron -- the F-8 squadron down in Hainan Island is a very aggressive squadron. And we know that this pilot, particularly, was a very aggressive pilot -- a good pilot but, as the saying goes, there are old fighter pilots and there are bold fighter pilots, but there are no old and bold fighter pilots.

Now, he got inside the 200-foot bubble. The international ICAO flight rules, when you intercept another plane you stay 200 feet out. And when you get with -- inside that 200-foot bubble -- and he obviously was getting in, and I think there's evidence that he was within three or four feet on other occasions, and we formally protested this in December, as you've seen in the press, and it was Wang Wei that we had this problem with before.

So he got in an area that, if there was any -- like a clearing turn on the EP-3 and he was right underneath the wing and he was either sucked up, because you get -- with airflow you can get pulled up like this -- or if he was not looking or if he was trying to do what they call a thumper maneuver, which is go full afterburner nad pull up in front of plane -- whatever it was, it was an accident on both sides and they got together. And that was the problem.

COSSACK: Ken, what are the Chinese hoping to accomplish by this incident? I mean, it seems pretty clear that the United States was in international waters and, as the general points out, there was nothing new or particularly frightening about what was going on and obviously there's a terrible event that's happened, and the loss of life. But what are they attempting to accomplish?

LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think once the incident occurred they had to figure out how to respond. And I believe that they, on the one hand, very much want to get off to a good start with this administration; but on the other hand they're, frankly, quite worried about the security posture that the new administration has taken toward China. It has indicated it's going to have robust arms sales package to Taiwan, improve our treatment of Taiwan, expand Japan's security role within our alliance, take a tough line toward North Korea and so forth. All of these things the Chinese find very unsettling.

And my understanding, from people I talked to while I was in China this week was that the Chinese military argued very strongly that they not only wanted a good look at this plane -- so, did not want to wrap this up quickly, but also that they wanted to kind of poke the U.S. in the eye, to show us that the Chinese are not Luxembourg. We can't simply move along without consideration of their concerns. And this would be a way to show that they can be tough and they can fight back.

That doesn't mean they're going to keep our people. They're going to turn them loose; we may get the plane back. But they weren't going to make this an easy process, and I think it's because of that larger context.

COSSACK: So Bruce, would the implication then, being that the Chinese recognize the fact that they've got this plane and they have the ability to do certain things that they didn't have the ability to do before they had it, is this -- in terms of negotiating, how do you go about negotiating when you almost see it's foregone that eventually we're going to get the troops -- the crew back as well as, at least, part of the plane back?

DICKSON: Well, as Ken mentioned, they obviously want to keep on taking a look at the plane -- whatever's left on it that's still intact -- take a good, hard look at it.

Another reason for the delay in resolving this may just be indecision on the part of the Chinese themselves about how this thing gets resolved. Even though China remains a one-party state, there's not just one opinion throughout the party; there's not one viewpoint within society. There's been very deep divisions within China about policy toward the U.S., about the greater integration into the international system.

So I think this collision and the fact that the American crewmembers are now in detention in Hainan just kind of brought that debate once more to a head and gave them an opportunity to, once again, rehash these issues. And once you do that, when there isn't a strong consensus within China it's hard for them to make a decision to move forward.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

When we come back: sensitive equipment and classified information; what were the crew's choices? Stay with us.


Thursday a judge ruled that the murder trial of Kennedy nephew Michael Shakel will remain in Stanford by denying a prosecution request to move the trial to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Shakel has been charged with the 1975 murder of neighbor Martha Moxley.


COSSACK: Earlier this week, U.S. officials reported the crew had successfully completed its preassigned orders to destroy materials that could jeopardize the United States and its mission if they became compromised. Still, U.S. authorities suspect the plane was stripped once it landed, and there could still be sensitive information now in the hands of the Chinese.

General, what is the procedure in a situation like this? What should the crew do to try to destroy the equipment that's onboard?

MCINERNEY: Roger, they practice these procedures, these self- destruct procedures, and each crew at his crew station goes through a process. And they can do it anywhere from less than in five minutes to 10 minutes, or maybe, at the very outside, in 15 minutes. But they can destroy all the very sensitive things, and there are some things that they have to do a little extra work on, but they have a process, and they train to do it. Those times I visit EP-3s -- or RC-135s, the Air Force version -- they'll give a little demonstration of how they go through this.

COSSACK: Of course, that's based on the fact they would have had the time and the ability. We know that this plane after it was damaged dropped some 8,000 feet quickly, and frankly, the pilot was lucky to be able to land it. With that knowledge in mind, how successful do you think the crew could have been in destroying this material?

MCINERNEY: Well, I think there's a little question there, all right? And I think there's a gray area. And as far as the computers themselves and those type of things, you could go to Compaq and get probably more up-to-date hard drives, speeds, and all of that. But the really sensitive things are the encryption and those areas that are sensitive.

COSSACK: General, briefly, tell me: Did the pilot do the right thing? There seems to be some, at least, criticism -- or, perhaps, suggested criticism -- that instead of landing the plane, perhaps he should have tried to ditch the plane.

MCINERNEY: I think he did the right thing. There will be a lot of people criticizing, but I think this pilot's going to turn out to be a real hero. Number one, I think just to recover that airplane when it went through a very dynamic maneuver was a miracle. He saved 24 lives.

We have military-to-military relations with the Chinese, and we send ships in there on visits, and he knew that. It was a Mayday situation, as we call it, an emergency situation. International law provides you to land wherever you can, to save the crew.

So Tom McInerney's view is he did the right thing.

COSSACK: All right, I want to go, Ken, to you now. One of the things that is coming up, that we've heard discussed, is this maritime conference that's coming up soon. A possible way, perhaps, is to provide a forum to set up rules so that things like this don't happen again. Can you speak to that?

LIEBERTHAL: Yes, I think this, in fact, would be a very good idea. That's a conference that I believe should meet in May, but it certainly could be moved up, even to as early as next week, if both sides agree to it. This is a standard meeting. It, certainly, would provide a good forum for both sides to go over what they know from the data on this accident. You could develop out of that maybe some better rules of the road and make sure that both sides understand how to conduct themselves, so this kind of accident becomes less likely in the future.

That, at the same time, let me add, would enable us and the Chinese to say that we were working out ways to reduce dramatically the chances of any such thing occurring in the future. That would meet one of the Chinese's concerns that we kind of back off from these missions. In reality, we wouldn't back off from the missions, but to the Chinese public, it may appear as if we did. That's one of the face-saving ways that you get out of a situation like this, and do so whole.

COSSACK: Bruce, is that something that we would expect the Chinese to agree to, to come to this maritime conference, have it quicker, and perhaps sit down and iron out these difficulties?

DICKSON: Well, China's been very eager to get off on the right foot with the new Bush administration. Before this incident, there have been over three very high-profile, high-level diplomatic missions to the United States, including that of their vice premier who's in charge of foreign affairs.

And the press reports from those meetings indicated that both the United States and the Chinese were happy that they were kind of setting the right tone, and the right things were being said. So they've been working hard at getting the communication right and getting the tone right.

There are channels in place to resolve these kinds of problems. They're not working really well in this crisis, but I think China does want to have the right kind of communication.

COSSACK: I have just 20 seconds left, and I wanted to go to the general.

General, would the military be in favor of this kind of conference?

MCINERNEY: Absolutely.

COSSACK: And why?

MCINERNEY: Well, because it prevents incidents like this from happening again. It's very important. We did it in the Maritime. Then Admiral Prueher headed up those talks a couple of years ago.

If we do it in the future, we're going to continue those flights. We need to have the protocol so this doesn't happen again.

COSSACK: I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today. Boy, I could have gone forever on this show.

Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching. Join me again Monday for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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