Crew released; recovering plane will take bargaining

Thursday, April 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Relieved that China freed an American flight crew, the Bush administration is mounting a fresh diplomatic effort to win back the crew's crippled surveillance plane and mute efforts by Republican conservatives to punish Beijing on the economic front.

``I'm very pleased they are back on American soil,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said early Thursday in Paris after receiving word that the crew had reached a planned stopover at a U.S. base in Guam.

Next Wednesday, U.S. and Chinese delegations will meet to weigh the future of the Navy aircraft, with no certainty it will be released or much U.S. confidence that its mission and spying equipment have not fallen into the hands of its captors.

``This is not over,'' Powell said amid meetings on the Balkans on Wednesday in Paris. ``Some discussions will begin, and we still have our plane there. But this will all unfold in the days and weeks ahead.''

Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, emphasized Thursday that the incident will not end U.S. surveillance flights near China, which she said are essential to the security of the United States and its Asian allies.

``The responsibility for avoiding future accidents rests not just with the United States, it rests heavily with the Chinese and the way that they respond to these flights,'' Rice said on NBC's ``Today.''

The letter approved by China to end the stalemate over the Americans, who had been detained for 12 days, said only that ``development of a plan for prompt return of the EP-3E aircraft and other related issues'' would be discussed.

With the crew of 21 servicemen and three servicewomen headed for Hawaii for decompression and debriefing before returning to their base on Whidbey Island, Wash., on Saturday, Bush said ``we can't wait for them to get home.''

But the Navy plane remained in Chinese hands, its future to be taken up at the joint meeting at a still unannounced site. ``The diplomacy continues, the discussions will continue,'' a State Department spokesman, Philip Reeker, said.

The Chinese, who have not relented in their insistence the plane operated illegally, also are not relenting in their insistence that such flights be discontinued.

But Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States has a right to continue to operate aircraft in international airspace. ``That is not a subject that we would want to concede on,'' he said in a radio interview.

For Bush, still enmeshed in his first major overseas squabble, handling of the diplomacy with China is a test of support at home, ironically mostly with political conservatives who would be his natural allies.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Bush ``exhibited mature and responsible leadership throughout this tense situation.''

But the dispute was giving impetus to a bill to overturn last year's law paving the way for China to gain permanent normal trade relations with the United States.

``This incident calls into question our current policy of sending American trade dollars to a nation that has displayed signs of hostility toward the United States,'' said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who proposed the measure to overturn the trade law.

``The Chinese didn't act in a normal way, so it brings the trade deal under greater scrutiny,'' said Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who voted for the trade bill but now has his doubts. ``The jury is still out on whether we would approve an extension.''

The EP-3E, crammed with surveillance equipment, collided with a Chinese fighter jet on April 1 and made on emergency landing on Hainan island in southern China. Crew members worked to destroy top-secret codes and intelligence before the Chinese came aboard.

China's acceptance of a letter in which the United States said it was ``very sorry'' the Chinese pilot was lost and the U.S. plane had not received permission to make an emergency landing broke the stalemate on the crew's return. The Chinese had demanded a full apology.

``The return of the crew has been our No. 1 priority from the beginning of this incident,'' Reeker said. ``We have also stated repeatedly that we expect the return of our aircraft. But as the letter states fairly clearly, that will be on the agenda at the meeting. The diplomacy continues. The discussions will continue.''

``We still have some problems with the airplane and we have to keep the airplane and to make further investigation,'' said Shen Guofang, China's deputy ambassador to the United Nations. ``The airplane violates our territory and the land without permission, so that is the problem, and also we have to make further investigation on the airplane.''

Significantly, perhaps, Shen reiterated the accusation his government had leveled from the outset _ that the lumbering spy plane violated Chinese territory. The Bush administration has rejected the accusation all along, and at Powell's insistence the letter accepted by China refers only to the plane's entering Chinese airspace to make an emergency landing.

``At this stage I don't think that we (have) decided yet ... when to hand over the plane, but we have to make further investigation anyway,'' the Chinese diplomat said.

Throughout the talks, China demanded an apology. In Paris, Powell said, ``There was nothing to apologize for. We did not do anything wrong, and therefore it was not possible to apologize.''

And, he said, ``We entered the airspace without permission because we were unable to get permission. Niceties and formalities were not available to us.''

As for the incident damaging relations, Powell said, ``We've stopped this process that was unfolding before it became more serious. ... I don't see anything that isn't recoverable.''

Hovering over the administration and Congress, meanwhile, is a decision on what weapons to sell Taiwan.

Beijing is determined to reunite the democratically-governed island with the mainland, and it sees U.S. arms sales as an affront to Chinese sovereignty.

The administration considers Taiwan to be under threat of Chinese missile attack and is weighing sale of destroyers and advanced radar.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, rejected claims of some conservative activists that detention of the crew and Bush's statements of regret and sorrow had humiliated the United States.

``This is not a humiliation for the United States,'' the former CIA officer said. ``If we get our troops back ... this means the sole superpower in the world, that has to deal with all the problems around the globe, has worked a very good solution to a friction point that's bothering a large sovereign nation.''