'China Overplayed Its Hand'

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US Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher addresses a press conference in Beijing

TIME.com: Why has China suddenly decided to let the U.S. personnel go home?

Matthew Forney: China's public statements maintain that they're sending the U.S. personnel home because the U.S. met China's demands for an apology. Obviously the U.S. fell far short of the apology China had demanded, but the Chinese media will withhold some information and spin the rest to its liking in order to convince their own people that the U.S. met their demands.

At a certain point, China's leaders realized that they had overplayed their hand. The Bush administration was unable to issue a blanket apology or to promise to end surveillance flights, and when China realized this, the leadership in Beijing — and President Jiang Zemin in particular — had to cut the best deal they could, and as quickly as they could before people in Washington began seeing this as a hostage situation and comparing it with Iran in 1979.

Did the timing of the announcement come as a surprise?

China's decision-making process is very slow. There was very little in the final U.S. statement accepted by the Chinese that wasn't already present in the statement on Sunday by Secretary of State Colin Powell. But Powell's comments didn't run in the Chinese media until today, Wednesday. It took China that long to digest Powell's comments and realize that this was as much as they were going to get, and to begin setting the stage to back down.

President Bush has certainly enhanced his domestic standing by his handling of the crisis. How has it played for President Jiang?

It's too early to tell. Right now, the media here is playing it as a victory for China, but it's clearly not a victory. There are things that China wanted that are not in the agreement — there's no blanket apology, and no undertaking to end U.S. surveillance flights. And there are things in the agreement that are embarrassing for China. The U.S. is saying that "the full picture of what transpired is still unclear," whereas China has insisted that its plane was rammed by the U.S. plane. And in its statement, the U.S. also refers to its "severely crippled aircraft" making "an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures." The Chinese media has never reported that the U.S. plane issued a Mayday call, and therefore many Chinese people still think the U.S. plane had aggressively entered their airspace.

So the U.S. personnel are coming home, but what about the plane?

The plane won't be coming home along with the crew. The two sides are scheduled to hold a meeting starting April 18 to discuss many issues, including the return of the aircraft. China still wants to take it apart and see what it can gain from analyzing the equipment on board. There's a precedent for this, in the 1976 incident in which a Soviet pilot defected to a U.S. base in Japan with his MiG, and the U.S. returned the plane after a long time, in crates. So the U.S. won't get much international sympathy if China holds on to the plane for a while.

From the Chinese side, what impact will the Hainan standoff have on the future of relations with Washington?

The Chinese showed that their bargaining position is ultimately weak. My suspicion is that President Jiang got bad advice, and was led to believe he could get more from the U.S. than was actually possible. So the outcome may be a large reality check for China's leaders. But I also think that China's leaders were not united on this. Some of the harder positions that emerged from Beijing during the standoff were taken to appease factions within the government, especially the military. Frankly, if Jiang Zemin and his policy of rapprochement with the West suffer politically within China, some people in the army won't necessarily be upset about that. To prove himself as a statesman, Jiang requires good relations with the U.S. The high point of his presidency was his 1997 visit to Washington, and President Clinton's China trip a year later. If relations with the U.S. deteriorate, that would be seen here as a failure of Jiang's policy. And that would further weaken him in the succession struggle that is already under way.