`Very sorry' letter from US ends spy plane stand-off with Chinese

The tense 11-day stand-off over the spy plane collision ended yesterday with the United States saying it was "very sorry" a Chinese…

The tense 11-day stand-off over the spy plane collision ended yesterday with the United States saying it was "very sorry" a Chinese pilot died in the collision and "very sorry" that the US plane landed in China without permission.

Early today a chartered aircraft carrying the 24 US air crew of the EP 3 spy plane took off from the island of Hainan, bound for Guam. Their return later to Hawaii for debriefing has taken the immediate heat out of the stand-off. Yet as President Bush expressed his delight at the news, others worried over the real long-term damage to the relationship between the two countries.

China agreed to release the 24 air crew, detained in Hainan Island since April 1st, following a letter from the US ambassador to China, Adm Joseph Prueher, to the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr Tang Jiaxuan.

In the end, the release of the American crewmen boiled down to word games rather than war games.


In a final version of the American letter, Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher, writes to the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Tang Jiaxuan, suggesting a framework for a resolution:

"Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss.

"Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures.

"We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely. We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew."

Mr Bush reinforced the letter, expressing sorrow for the death of fighter pilot Wang Wei, who parachuted into the South China Sea and is presumed dead. The letter's second expression of sorrow clearly reinforces the effect of the first, but significantly is also used in a slightly different sense. In the latter case the US is accepting that there was a breach of protocol on its part, for whatever reason, and thus the word "sorry" carries a connotation of apology which the Chinese will no doubt make the most of. A State Department spokesman made clear that the US was only taking responsibility for its English language version of the letter.

In the Chinese version of the letter, President Bush and Mr Colin Powell's sincere regret was described as "yihan", an expression of regret that carried no acknowledgement of guilt. The word used to say they were "very sorry" for the loss of the pilot and for entering Chinese airspace was "quian yi", again a term that carried no connotations of guilt, a Chinese language expert told The Irish Times.

The message that the Chinese public was getting on state TV newscasts last night was defeat for the American "hegemonists" and victory for China.

While the US expressed its double sorry in the letter, it did not accept responsibility for the incident or apologise in full as China had insisted. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a news briefing that as the US had said "very sorry" to the Chinese people, the Chinese government had "out of humanitarian considerations" decided to allow the crew members to leave China.

While the letter appeared to fall short of China's insistent demands that Washington apologise, it was enough for the Chinese government to convince an angry public that Washington had indeed done so.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said this was not the conclusion of the case and the investigation into the incident was still going on. Both sides have agreed to hold a meeting to discuss the incident on April 18th.

Asked what would happen to the EP 3 which is packed with sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment, the ministry spokesman said: "The Chinese side reserves the right to make representations to the US government pending the results of the investigation."

The sticking point all along was China's demand for an "apology" - dao qian in Chinese. But the US insisted the collision was an accident and it had nothing to apologise for.

The formula worked out in the end allowed both sides to save face. The problem in the next few days may be when it sinks in with the Chinese public that what they got from America was not quite the "full apology" originally demanded.

Prof Paul Williams of Stanford Law School described the words as "a minor apology".

"The Chinese gave about 95 per cent and we gave about 5 per cent," said Dr Robert Hathaway, head of the Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

From Mr Bush's perspective the formulation is unlikely to expose him to further complaints on the right and the signs are that the verdict on his handling of the situation, after a blustering start, will be positive.

In the longer term there are still problems. US Congressional sources were again talking yesterday of the row poisoning the water of other key debates, most immediately that on the sale of radars to Taiwan which has to be dealt with within a week.

The US is still planning to take China to task over its human-rights abuses in looming UN hearings, and Congress has to ratify the restoration of normal trading relations that is part of the Chinese accession to the World Trade Organisation.