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Should the U.S. Apologize to End the Current Standoff With China?

Aired April 9, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, American officials met with 24 crew members being held in China as the White House walks a diplomatic tightrope and the president writes to the grieving wife of the missing Chinese pilot.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got every diplomatic channel open. We're in discussions with the Chinese. It is now time for our troops to come home so that our relationship does not become damaged.



FEI-LING WANG, GEORGIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: The mood over there has remained to be roughly the same, in other words, demanding apology, pinning the blame on the United States and asking the Chinese government to be tough and strong and to be patriotic, to be nationalistic. I think the mood is roughly the same.



JAMES SASSER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: The Chinese are negotiating just as they always do when they hold all of the cards. They're going very slowly, going very painstakingly and drawing it out. And now I think we're really negotiating over words and a question of semantics.


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

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

It's day nine in an international stand-off between the United States and China and two dozen Americans remain in captivity.

Earlier today, two U.S. officials visited the 24 crew members for 40 minutes. They were reportedly in excellent health and in very high spirits. They've been held by the Chinese since making an emergency landing after their surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet.

Yesterday, President George W. Bush sent a letter of sympathy to the wife of the missing Chinese pilot through the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Now, the text of the letter was not made public by the White House.

Joining us today here in Washington is international relations professor Huan Jiang Chaou (ph). Joining us today here in Washington is professor of diplomacy Casimir Yost, international law professor Jim Feinerman and Chris Candy (ph). And in the back, Megan Marville (ph) and Brian Jones.

And now, joining us from the White House is CNN correspondent Major Garrett -- Major, there was a Cabinet meeting today led by, of course, President George W. Bush. What came out of that meeting?

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what came out of it, Roger, was a very direct message from the president of the United States to the Chinese hierarchy both on the political and military side. There's been a good deal of discussion here at the White House internally about who's really in control of this situation in Beijing, is it the military bureaucracy or is it the political apparatus beneath President Jiang Zemin?

Well, whoever is in charge, the president wanted to send them a message, which is that if this goes on much longer, in the president's own words, relations between the United States and China could be damaged.

I refer you to that earlier sound bite we just ran from former China -- ambassador to the Chinese government, James Sasser, former United States senator. He said that the Chinese are negotiating the way they always do when they hold all the cards.

Well, clearly there was a tipping point yesterday where the administration wanted to remind the Chinese that, perhaps, they, in fact, do not hold all of the cards and there are other parts of the U.S.-Chinese relationship that could be damaged the longer this goes on.

COSSACK: Major, what about the letter that President Bush sent to the wife or the widow, now, I'm sorry to say, of the downed and perhaps missing and perhaps dead Chinese pilot? Was there any reaction to that and do we know what exactly the president said?

Manageable well, the White House has said that that letter simply expressed the president's regret, tried to seize upon some of the things that she said in her letter to the president that were at least viewed by the White House as positive, talking about the future of U.S. relations with China, trying to acknowledge her grief that her husband may, in fact, be lost.

It's important to point out that neither the Chinese government nor the U.S. government calls her a widow because the Chinese government is still engaged in a rather elaborate and extensive search and recovery rescue operation. So neither government has said that that Chinese fighter pilot is, in fact, dead.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said that this was a way of expressing American regret for the loss, the apparent loss of that life, but nothing more. The White House also described it as a humanitarian gesture from the president, a gesture that they hope will carry great weight in China, at least showing that the commander-in- chief of the most powerful military in the world can write a note to a wife in a circumstance such as this, showing a degree of sympathy, a degree of regret. The White House hopes that will move things along.

COSSACK: Jim, the notion of, as Major brings up, this perhaps internal struggle between the military side of the Chinese government and the diplomatic side of the Chinese government, there are those who believe this is becoming more apparent and that is why this is dragging on. Your thoughts on that?

JIM FEINERMAN, PROFESSOR OF ASIAN LEGAL STUDIES: Well, I think most China specialists believe this is very real. Theoretically Jiang Zemin is the paramount leader in China, like Deng Xiaoping and Mao Tse-tung before him. But they had strong military ties and had experience as military leaders during the Long March and the revolutionary struggle.

Jiang is really a civilian leader who's tried to assert some control over the military, but it's pretty clear that he doesn't really effectively have it and as long as he doesn't and as long as there is some sort of clear space between him and the military about the positions they'd like to take vis-a-vis the United States on this issue, it's going to be very hard for them to reach a final resolution.

COSSACK: Casimir, that is, in a sense, something that if Jim's analysis is correct does not bode well for a quick conclusion to this stand-off. Obviously you have two positions within the government that are at odds with each other, the Chinese government. How do you get around it? If that's true, what do you do?

CASIMIR YOST, MEMBER BOARD OF TRUSTEES, ASIA FOUNDATION: Well, I think not only is it true but it's particularly true now. China is about to go into a major leadership transition. Next year the party congress will meet and part of the role of that party congress is to inaugurate a new leadership for China. So you have a juggling process that's underway as leaders, would be leaders begin to position themselves for what comes after the current generation of Chinese leaders.

During that juggling process, the security services, the military, all play a role that they would not in the normal course of business.

COSSACK: What's the benefit to taking a rather strong military position? What would be the argument of the military leaders? YOST: Well, I think the argument comes back to Chinese concern about sovereignty, about face, about stature in the world. China is attempting to position itself at present as playing a new and more ambitious role in the world and the country that stands in its -- in the way of its doing so is the United States. And so there's a testing process that is underway now and we're seeing evidence of it across a whole range of issues.

COSSACK: It's almost as if the Chinese government or the Chinese military was saying now you must respect me.

YOST: Well, they're looking for respect, but the other feature to this is that we are seeing a traditional pattern of Chinese negotiating unfolding here. The Chinese, when they get into a negotiating situation such as this one, are testing their interlocutor. They want to see are we going to get as much as we possibly can out of the United States.

COSSACK: It's almost a cultural event. And with that, let me just interrupt you for a second, because we have to take a break.

Up next, the hazy line between regret and sorrow. And is Beijing trying to get Uncle Sam to say uncle? Don't go away.


COSSACK: It's become a question of semantics, how the American government responds to a collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet. Should U.S. diplomats express sorrow or regret for a missing pilot and are cultural barriers adding fuel to the flame?

Jim, I want to talk a little bit about those cultural barriers. During the break, we had the opportunity to discuss for a moment the notion of what China is attempting to find out about the U.S. government and our new president. Describe some of those things.

FEINERMAN: Well, I think they're trying to figure out whether or not the Bush administration is firm in its positions, which seemed to be, at least initially, somewhat anti-China, and whether they can follow a similar trajectory that they did with the Clinton administration.

Clinton came in, of course, criticizing Bush's father for coddling Chinese dictators and yet within two years the policy towards China completely changed. They had dropped their aggressive human rights stance towards China and moved towards a much more conciliatory one so that by the end of the administration, Clinton was talking about a strategic partnership between the U.S. and China.

Now, Bush sounded rather tough and somewhat hostile in the campaign and in the first few days of the new administration, but they're probing to see exactly where they're going to come out and whether they can use incidents like this to try and push the administration to a somewhat different position.

COSSACK: So Cas, within the Chinese government, then, this issue becomes a symbol for other things?

YOST: It becomes symbolic. The risk that the Chinese are running now is exactly the risk that the administration pointed out over the weekend, that they will get, they will push us one step too far and at that point their short run advantage, which is holding onto our folks, becomes a long run disadvantage. They want our support in their hosting the 2008 Olympics. They want us to limit arms sales to Taiwan. They want to eventually get into the WTO.

There are a whole series of issues on which U.S. cooperation is important to the Chinese and those begin to kick in, you know, in a very serious sort of way for the Chinese if this is not resolved in the short run.

COSSACK: If you, Cas, if you, if that is the proper analysis, is that why you extrapolate out the notion of why the apology becomes so important because it's a way of, if you will, placating the Chinese military and getting the Chinese diplomacy off the hook?

YOST: What I don't think we want to do, I mean my own view is that the administration has it about right, that we should not apologize, first of all, because we don't know all of the facts of the situation. But the other is that with that apology would come additional demands on additional issues.

I think Jim has it right, that we are in a testing period here. The foreign ministry in Beijing may want...

COSSACK: I'm sorry, let me interrupt you for one second.

YOST: Right.

COSSACK: We have to go to Atlanta to Natalie Allen -- Natalie?

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Roger, thank you.

We've heard from the White House today so now we're going to hear from the State Department. They're holding their daily briefing and we're going to get the latest from them on the impasse with China.




4:30pm ET, 4/16

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