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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 20:38 GMT 21:38 UK
Cloudy future for Sino-US relations
President Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice
A majority of Americans supported the president's handling of the situation
By US State Department correspondent Richard Lister

China's 11-day detention of the US spy plane crew was George W Bush's first major test as president, and most commentators here appear to have awarded him an A, or at least B+ for how he handled the affair.

Editorials in the mainstream American press have generally praised the Bush team's efforts.

They "showed remarkable discipline" said the Washington Post, and "achieved a diplomatic solution without yielding" to Beijing, according to the New York Times.

But he has taken some flack from conservatives.

In particular an acid-tongued editorial, the right-wing Weekly Standard magazine said that President Bush had brought "profound national humiliation" on the United States by his "grovelling" to China.

Pragmatism over ideology

That is a minority view though, according to American opinion polls.

Even before China agreed to return the crew, a Gallup poll suggested that more than 60% of the American public approved of the way President Bush was dealing with the situation.

Secretary of State Colin Powell
Colin Powell played a key diplomatic role
This is a president who came into office describing China as a "strategic competitor" not a "strategic partner", a nation to be dealt with firmly when required.

Yet, in this first brush with Beijing he replaced ideology with pragmatism, preferring patient and private diplomacy over tub-thumping rhetoric.

His first comments, demanding the "prompt and safe" return of the crew, and the later insistence by the Secretary of State Colin Powell that there would be no apology, defined the parameters of the negotiations.

Mr Powell outlined a "road map" for resolving the issue in a letter to the Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen on 4 April, but there was no other contact with Chinese officials by him, and none by President Bush, in an effort to minimise the diplomatic fallout.

Carefully worded apology

The next move was to neutralise the incident, rather than to go on the offensive as some Congressional hawks had wished.

Jiang Zemin
Jiang Zemin may hope for some dividends from the incident
Mr Powell talked of exchanging explanations for how the accident occurred, and both he and President Bush expressed their regret for the loss of the pilot.

Careful scrutiny of the final letter sent to the Chinese authorities, which was signed by Ambassador Prueher and not President Bush, reveals no evidence of an apology or acceptance of full responsibility for the crash, which China had demanded.

It asks that Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan "convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss," which could have been written whether the US was involved or not.

The letter also says the US is "very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance", which could equally be understood to mean the US is sorry the Chinese did not grant it.

Clouded future

In the end this looks like a clear victory for President Bush and for Secretary Powell, who was given wide leeway to co-ordinate the negotiations.
The advanced Aegis radar cruiser
The standoff could affect US sales of arms to Taiwan

The White House says there were no "side deals" to win the crew's release, and officials from the Vice-President down, insist there will be no end to the surveillance flights along China's coast.

There is the small matter of the stranded spy plane of course, but unlike the crew, the longer it stays there, the less of a priority it becomes.

It is difficult though, to predict what long term impact the incident may have on Sino-US relations.

President Bush was able to contain those hotheads in Congress who were demanding revenge. But the standoff has left its mark, and there is more distrust of Beijing now than ever.

That will certainly mean more active lobbying - by some - against China's desire to stage the 2008 Olympics.

But it is unlikely to get in the way of extending normal trade privileges to China, which President Bush ardently supports.

It may well influence US support for Taiwan though. President Bush has made his move on the sophisticated weaponry being sold to the island, and this recent incident has done nothing to suggest that Beijing will now be considered as less of a threat to regional stability.


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