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Western Press Review: Surveillance Aircraft And Its Crew

  • Don Hill

Prague, 5 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British commentary in RFE/RL's survey today of the Western press continues to concentrate on a confrontation between China and the United States over China's detaining a U.S. surveillance aircraft and its crew.


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" carries a commentary signed by Thom Beal, deputy editorial page editor of the Journal's Asian edition ("The Asian Wall Street Journal"). Beal writes: "The ominous tone of events since Sunday's (1 April) collision of a United States Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter bring John le Carre spy novels to mind. It's as if Beijing is reading from a script taken from the Cold War vaults. And indeed it may be. With its claim of victimization, strident demand for an apology, unyielding yet specious assertion that the U.S. plane violated Chinese territorial airspace, and refusal to release the aircraft's 24-member crew, China in rhetoric and behavior appears to be re-enacting the 1968 USS Pueblo incident. (Refers to incident in which North Korea captured a U.S. surveillance watercraft and detained its crew.)


In an editorial, "The New York Times" urges U.S. and Chinese authorities to act as though the two nations were engaged in friendly relations, even though they are not. The newspaper says: "A more constructive approach for both sides would emphasize fact-finding and a sharing of information about the incident. At this point, the world has little idea what actually happened Sunday morning, since neither country has provided hard information about the route of the American and Chinese planes and the exact nature of the collision."

The editorial concludes: "If this accident involved the aircraft of two friendly nations, those nations' military commanders would get together to examine the data. The crew members who had to make an emergency landing on foreign territory would be sent home and their plane would be returned. The two countries would cooperate in the search for the missing pilot. Washington and Beijing are not allies or even friends, but there is surely room for some creative and quiet diplomacy between two nations that have repeatedly expressed a desire to stabilize relations."


Britain's "Financial Times" runs an editorial entitled, "George W. Bush's Chance To Earn His Spurs." It says that President Bush has presented himself as a man backed by a superbly well-equipped foreign policy team. Now, says the paper, he should demonstrate this with dazzling diplomacy in response to China's demand that the United States apologize. The newspaper says: "Some form of diplomatic words can presumably be found that stops well short of an apology but satisfies Chinese sensitivities."

The editorial says: "The EP-3 [surveillance plane] incident will be judged not just as a test of Mr. Bush's international nerve and political mettle in a low-grade crisis, but of the new realism in foreign policy that has replaced the soft-centered internationalism of the Clinton era. It will set the tone for U.S. relations with China for much of this administration and that in turn will be the key to understanding what the Bush team means by its criticism of its predecessor."


"The Chicago Tribune" concurs with the "Financial Times"' conclusion. It says: "That this first test for the Bush administration would involve China comes as no surprise. Wherever U.S. economic, diplomatic, or military interests lie, China increasingly looms on the other side as a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century. But there is nothing writ in stone that says the United States and China must be enemies and this incident should not be the spark."

The paper adds: "The relative restraint -- so far -- on both sides of the Pacific has been wise. Also important is that neither the United States nor China sets unrealistic expectations for what the other side must do to resolve this incident." It concludes: "The United States should not apologize for an accident that occurred in international airspace, although a diplomatic way surely can be crafted that allows China to save face."


Dana Milbank, commenting in "The Washington Post," says that the Bush White House is choosing its words carefully in order best to manage domestic opinion. Milbank says with some irony: "Let's make a few things perfectly clear. There is no U.S. Navy spy plane being held by China. There are no hostages or detainees. And the current episode with China is neither a crisis nor an international incident. Furthermore, the United States will not apologize -- although it has made a statement of regret. This," he adds, "is the official word from U.S. government word-smiths."

The commentator quotes Navy spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley as saying that the U.S. airplane involved is not a spy plane, but a reconnaissance plane. Milbank says the admiral told reporters: "I think of 'spy' and I think of covert, and I think of disguises and stealing things and stuff like that. The people on the plane, therefore, are not spies."

Another example, taken by Milbank from a briefing by White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer: "The 24 Americans held in China are not hostages, and are not even detainees -- even if, as Secretary of State Colin Powell has said, they are being 'detained.' The president refers to them as our servicemen and women," the commentary quotes Fleisher as saying.


"New York Times" political columnist William Safire derides the Chinese behavior in this incident as "standard cold-war communist mind-set." He predicts that China soon will release the crew. He writes: "The Chinese reaction to what is so obviously an accident reveals a standard cold-war Communist mind-set: (1) Blame the United States for killing its reckless pilot. (2) Assert that the collision occurred within its territorial waters although it happened over 50 miles out to sea. (3) Complain that our crippled plane failed to get permission to land when it radioed 'mayday' and put down at the nearest airstrip. (4) Hold our crew incommunicado and then, against all civilized custom, treat them as prisoners. (5) Take our plane apart to steal what computer secrets our crewmen were not able to destroy. (6) Insist we halt surveillance of its coastal patrols and oil exploration."

Safire continues: "Finally, the most significant Chinese reaction at the highest level was: (7) Humiliate the United States in Asian eyes by demanding an official apology. An expression of regret or sorrow at the loss of life would not suffice. Beijing made clear that only an abject confession of being in the wrong, followed by a Clintonesque apology, would do."

He concludes: "Beijing will soon awaken to its blunder. Our 'explanation' and 'regret' will lead to its release of our detainees or internees (never say hostages or prisoners). Too late -- the tide of political opinion may be turning."