China Standoff: Lesser Apologies May Save the Day

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A Chinese military policeman watches the U.S. ambassador's car

It all depends on what you mean by "sorry." Or more correctly, what exactly you're sorry for. Diplomatic copywriters continued their frenzied search Monday for a mutually acceptable language that would allow China and the U.S. to resolve the standoff over the downed U.S. spy plane at Hainan. The domestic political pressures on both sides were visible over the weekend as China appeared unyielding in its demand for a U.S. apology as the precondition for handing back the 24 detained U.S. personnel and their plane, while Bush administration officials reiterated that there would be no apology and warned that prolonging the crisis could damage U.S.-China relations.

Still, there were plenty of signs of a softening atmosphere; President Bush dispatched a personal letter of condolence to the wife of the Chinese pilot believed killed in the collision with the U.S. plane, and Chinese officials allowed a fourth visit by U.S. officials Monday to the detained crew members.

Domestic pressures

The U.S. warnings may reflect the administration's concern that if the crisis is not resolved when Congress reconvenes next week, pressure will quickly mount in Washington for a tougher stand against Beijing — which would likely result in similar hardening of the Chinese position. The congressional recess has given the Bush administration a window in which to cut a deal relatively free of domestic political interference, but Chinese president Jiang Zemin's 10-day visit to Latin America, which began last Wednesday, may complicate matters. Some observers believe that the Jiang's absence from Beijing is giving greater weight to statements emanating from the military, which is taking a harder line in part because of its own embarrassment at losing a pilot and a plane and then apparently being taken by surprise when the stricken U.S. aircraft arrived in Hainan. In some quarters of the Chinese military, the option has been raised of putting the U.S. personnel on trial, an intolerable option for Washington which would raise the pressure for some form of diplomatic retaliation.

Elsewhere, however, Chinese leaders appear to be dropping broad hints to help their American counterparts find a way to give face without losing any. President Jiang, in comments reported over the weekend, likened the situation to an incident in which two people bump into one another on the sidewalk, in which it would be customary to say "Excuse me." (He used the phrase in English.)

Sorry for what?

And there's a second dimension of the incident that could create the basis for an apology by the U.S. that would avoid assuming responsibility for the actual collision. Since the beginning of the crisis, Chinese officials have repeatedly dwelt on the complaint that after the accident, the stricken U.S. plane did not seek permission either to enter Chinese airspace or to land at one of its military airports. The facts of what occurred after the midair collision are scarcely in dispute, although the U.S. obviously has the mitigating factor of the onboard emergency. Washington could plausibly find a way to apologize for landing in Chinese territory without permission but avoid the political and legal implications of assuming responsibility for the accident. Then again, appearing to apologize at all might be difficult for the Bush administration at this point. Thus the challenge facing the diplomats: Crafting a script that the Chinese can claim as an apology but which Washington can sell as simple politeness. And that's a challenge in which translation may be their best weapon.

With reporting by Jay Branegan/Washington