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Western Press Review: A Rare Consensus Among Commentators

Prague, 4 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Rarely in our daily review of the Western press have newspapers commentators agreed so broadly on two topics requiring comment as they do today. There is widespread discussion of the U.S.-China confrontation over a mid-air collision, and nearly as widespread examination of the detention of Yugoslavia's former President Slobodan Milosevic.

Editorials and commentators describe the aftermath of last weekend's crash involving a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter aircraft with terms like "new cold war," "test for China," "test for [U.S. President George W.] Bush," and "Chinese pride." Here's a sampling of excerpts:


Commentator Uwe Schmitt in "Die Welt": "Apparently the Bush administration suspects that Communist China's civilian leaders may not have complete control of the situation and may be under heavy pressure from the country's military to take a hard-line attitude."


"Wall Street Journal Asia" -- republished in "Wall Street Journal Europe" -- editorial: "American diplomats last night met with the 24 crew members of the U.S. reconnaissance plane that made an emergency landing Sunday on China's Hainan Island. This meeting, however, did not ease the diplomatic face-off between the two nations following the mid-air collision between their planes. China has done nothing to contradict the growing suspicion that the crew are being held as bargaining chips of some sort."


"Christian Science Monitor" editorial under headline, "Fledgling Dragon:" "Rising powers like modern China that are just spreading their military and economic wings need special care and handling. That's the lesson to be learned from this week's incident of a detained U.S. spy plane in China."


Britain's "Financial Times" editorial: "The events of the past three days have echoes of the world before the Berlin Wall came down -- John Le Carre (Cold War espionage) novels, the Iron Curtain and the Soviet threat. But contrary to the imagery, it seems unlikely that the world's only superpower and Asia's communist giant are on the brink of a new cold war. Or, at least, not yet. For one thing, the virtual military parity that conditioned the former standoff between Washington and Moscow does not exist because the China's People's Liberation Army is much weaker than the U.S. military."


"Boston Globe" editorial: "Because this incident comes at a time when Beijing is doing everything it can to deflect Bush from selling Taiwan the advanced Aegis radar system on Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, there will be suspicion in Washington of a Chinese effort to blackmail Bush. The terms need not be explicit. If some crew members are released soon and others are held on suspicion of causing the death of the downed Chinese pilot, Bush will understand the implicit threat: that the fate of the crew members remaining in custody could be affected by his decision about advanced weapons for Taiwan."


In the British daily "Guardian," commentator Polly Toynbee finds that the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto global-warming treaty, U.S. insistence on developing a National Missile Defense system, and worsening U.S.-China relations are closely related. She writes: "In his own inimitable words, let no one 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush. He is the most right-wing president in living memory. If this is compassionate conservatism, what does the other sort look like? In less than 100 days he has turned America into a pariah, made enemies of the entire world, his only friends the dirty polluters of the oil industry who put him there. His foreign non-policy is a calamity, brilliantly uniting Russia and China with gratuitous offence and threat."

Commentary on both sides of the Atlantic on the Milosevic case reflects on continuation of U.S. aid to Yugoslavia, the proper venue for judging Milosevic -- and its timing. Here's our sampling:


"Sueddeutsche Zeitung" commentary by Peter Muench, under the headline, "The Charge is Murder": "Slobodan Milosevic's cell in Belgrade's Central Prison is spartan, without even a window to the world outside. But then, probably the less the ousted Serb strongman knows about what's happening outside his cell, the better off he is. So many forces are gathering against Milosevic, said Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic, that he might want to voluntarily turn himself over to the United Nations' war crimes tribunal in The Hague in order to escape the death penalty at home."


"Washington Post" editorial: "Monday's decision by Secretary of State Colin Powell to approve aid to Yugoslavia was the right response to the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic. In order to carry out the arrest, the authorities in Belgrade had to overcome [psychological as well as] physical barriers. [That's because] many Serbs continue to see themselves and Mr. Milosevic more as victims than as aggressors in the past decade of Balkan violence. Members of Congress who argue that Yugoslavia still does not qualify for aid are underestimating the advance that the arrest constitutes."


Britain's "Daily Telegraph," commentary by Noel Malcolm: "The Belgrade courts are really not a suitable venue for a no-holds-barred examination of Milosevic's wartime activities. The point is not merely that the judiciary is still riddled with his own appointees. The political climate is just too unpropitious: the people now in power might be almost as embarrassed by the trial as the man in the dock, and might therefore feel an interest in playing down or restraining the prosecution."


"Chicago Tribune" editorial: "The demand that Belgrade deliver Milosevic to the UN tribunal has not gone away. But the United States and its allies look as though they understand the wisdom of patience. Merely arresting him was a highly controversial step among the Yugoslavians, who like other people tend to resent being told what to do -- particularly by countries with whom they were at war not very long ago. It will take some time before Milosevic's former subjects are ready to see him brought before the bar of international justice -- but it's safe to assume that will happen. The Bush administration can be expected to apply additional financial pressure in due time. International leverage is one reason UN war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte optimistically predicts that Milosevic will be in The Hague by the end of the year."


"Washington Post" analysis by R. Jeffery Smith, writing from Belgrade: "International demands for the extradition of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to face a war crimes trial are unlikely to be granted before the end of this year. [One] reason is that Milosevic [will] first be tried here on domestic corruption charges. But another is that the extradition issue is tangled in politics surrounding the widely predicted secession this summer of one of the two remaining republics of Yugoslavia, Montenegro. Such a breakup would lead to the creation of two new, separate countries -- Serbia and Montenegro -- each with its own national constitution, judicial system, and new parliament. Serbia, in which Milosevic is being held, would have to settle on a new law on extradition before it could promise to hand Milosevic over to a United Nations tribunal."