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The U.S. Owes No Apology To the Chinese


Thursday, April 5, 2001

By James Lilley and Arthur Waldron . Mr. Lilley is former ambassador to China and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Waldron is a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

If a risk-taking Chinese pilot caused the collision that began the current face-off -- and the U.S. has evidence that is the case -- then the Chinese make a real mistake if they insist that America accept blame and apologize.

Indeed, the official Chinese story, upon which President Jiang Zemin has based his demand for an apology, appears in fact to be part of a Chinese military coverup, designed to conceal their own mistakes not only from the outside world, but from the Chinese leadership in Beijing as well.

[Jiang Zemin]

Credence was always stretched by any scenario in which the lumbering, propeller-driven EP-3 veered suddenly, and crashed into the much faster, and relatively more nimble, Chinese F-8 fighter. Aerodynamics alone suggest that the Chinese plane is far more likely to have made the contact. Furthermore, the lost pilot, Wang Wei, was, according to some sources, a "hot dog" -- a pilot who constantly pushed the envelope and didn't always fly by the book.

If established to the satisfaction of Beijing, this fact offers a (slim) possibility for bringing this confrontation to a speedy conclusion. We need to demonstrate to the Chinese leaders involved in resolving the dispute that the information coming up their line of command is, in fact, not accurate, and that they are being pushed into an unnecessary confrontation with the U.S. by lower-level military and political officers who are trying to cover up their own errors.

What should be routine and symbolic Chinese "interceptions" of unarmed American aircraft in international air space have, in recent months, become more and more reckless -- that according to the U.S. Pacific forces commander, Adm. Dennis Blair. Now a barnstorming pilot has made a mistake that has cost him his life -- but which is also, wrongly, threatening to undermine the whole U.S.-China relationship. Wang's death is regrettable and America's condolences have already been conveyed to his family. But remember: The U.S. almost lost a crew of 24.

The attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, with which this incident is constantly compared, was an American error -- as we acknowledged, and for which we apologized and compensated China. This time we are not at fault, so no apology should be forthcoming. Nor should Washington insist that China apologize. Simply shifting the rhetorical gears from blame to regret will be enough.

Quiet negotiations are under way to reconcile the different versions of a possible statement of closure, based on mutually acceptable language. Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement yesterday was perfectly pitched: "We regret the Chinese pilot did not get down safely, and we regret the loss of life of that Chinese pilot, but now we need to move on and we need to bring this to a resolution." This is the way forward.

This compromise over language may be a trifle challenging for China's face-conscious leaders. Even before the true circumstances of the accident have been determined by investigation, the issue has become a political football in China. Attitudes toward the accident have already been defined there, quite mistakenly, as a test of patriotism and national pride. But the U.S. was evidently not at fault in this accident, and protracting the blame game will only threaten China's deeply-held aspirations to join the World Trade Organization, host the Olympics, and welcome President Bush to Beijing, among other things.

The bar for resolution is fairly low, however. All China needs to do is to stop hammering on the issue of blame and return the plane and the crew immediately. The incident will then be closed. We can then move on to serious issues, such as economic cooperation and development.

Some in Beijing will no doubt disagree. They will calculate that increasing the pressure on the U.S. -- not just by demanding an apology but also, perhaps, by threatening espionage charges -- will tilt the balance in Washington in favor of yielding. Certainly, some in Washington will argue, as they always do in such cases, that the huge and important U.S.-Chinese relationship is simply not worth risking over a "minor" incident. To them, a pro forma apology is a small price to pay for keeping it on track.

But here, one suspects, they have misjudged the Bush administration. It is true that President Clinton tended to give China what it wanted when Beijing put pressure on him, and even the senior Bush and President Reagan found themselves outmaneuvered on occasion. But when Messrs. Reagan and Bush drew the line, and when Mr. Clinton sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Straits in 1996 in response to Chinese missile firings, Beijing got the message.

Precisely because credibility is so important, and because so much has already been lost, the present Bush administration is unlikely to respond positively to Chinese intimidation and demands. Americans will do what is fair and apologize when an apology is in order -- as the sorry story of Belgrade shows. But when the U.S. is not to blame, Beijing should understand that nailing the Chinese flag to a self-serving Chinese military coverup will cut no ice in Washington, and only undermine important Chinese and U.S. long-term interests.