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Tuesday, 10 April, 2001, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes quizzed

The war of words between China and the US over the fate of the American spy plane continues to escalate.

China has renewed its demand for a US apology over the incident, while the Americans are pressing for the immediate release of the aircraft and its crew.

The US is reportedly considering several options to put pressure on the Chinese. These include withdrawing some diplomats from China, or even cancelling President Bush's planned trip to Beijing.

But how would these measures play in China? How is the situation being seen from there? Is there room for manoeuvre?

Our Beijing correspondent, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, joined us for a forum to answer your questions on this escalating row.


To listen to coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Transcript:


James McBride, Cardiff:

If the Americans are indeed at fault and Bush refuses an apology what are the chances of a manslaughter charge being applied to the pilots of the EP-3 spy plane ?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

The Chinese have played up the legal angle of this incident quite a lot. They have said that the US clearly broke international law and it is now holding the crew partially responsible for that. But I think the chances of this actually becoming a legal issue and putting these people on trial is very, very remote.

I think China is using these legal arguments to put further pressure on the United States to get the demands that it wants and it's demands are basically an apology and a admission of responsibility for this incident.

I don't think China has any interest in blowing this issue up further. Putting these people on trial would do enormous damage to US-China relations. It would cause a major rupture between the two countries and I don't think China at the moment is interested in that at all.

I think we will see a resolution of this incident in the coming days, but China is still wanting to put further pressure on the United States by using these sorts of legal arguments.


Neil Currie, England:

Do you feel this was a deliberate attack by the Chinese military to get their hands on US Military hardware?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

Well given the fact that the Chinese have lost a fighter jet and it now looks like they have lost a pilot as well, I don't think this is likely to be a deliberate attack. However, what it does look like is more aggressive behaviour by the Chinese in dealing with these sorts of intrusions in, what they consider to be, their territorial airspace and waters by US surveillance flights.

We understand from the Americans, that they have monitored in recent months a number of interceptions by the Chinese military of US surveillance flights and that during these interceptions, the Chinese jet fighters have got very, very close to the American planes. They are saying that there has been a noticeable increase in the aggressiveness of the Chinese airforce in intercepting these surveillance flights.

These are very normal things that go on in international relations. During the Cold War it was very common for the Russians to fly surveillance flights along the coast of the UK and the RAF would go up and intercept the Russian planes in the same way. So this is a very normal practice.

What appears to have happened here we really don't know. But what appears, at least on the surface, to have happened is that this interception went wrong. A pilot on one side or the other made a serious mistake, the two planes collided and it has caused this crisis. But I don't think it is a deliberate act of trying to bring the US plane down.


Bill Weingartler, Sternberk, Czech Republic:

Most civil aircraft carry flight data recorders and voice recorders. Isn't it in the interests of both China and the US to have these examined by an independent observer to determine what has happened? If they do not carry them, why not?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

I am not absolutely 100% sure, but a lot of military do not carry flight recorders - that is my understanding. It is only obliged that civilian aircraft do carry them. So we don't really know whether this plane has got them on board or not.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry today has been asked this very question - why not allow international observers or the US to take part in this investigation? They would not give a straight answer on this and one can only think that the Chinese Government doesn't have a great deal of interest at the moment in seeing a thorough investigation of this incident.

I think it comes back to what I was saying earlier - this is a political argument between the US and China. I don't think that when it comes down to it they are interested in getting down to the nitty-gritty of who was right and wrong. They are interested in making a political statement - trying to get the US to back down and trying to get their demands - which go a little bit beyond just wanting an apology from the United States.

I think the Chinese want to make a point that they don't like the way that the US is behaving towards them. They don't like these flights that are seen by the Chinese as being very provocative and they want to make a real point about it.


Andreas Schipelbaum, Basingstoke, England:

How is China justifying the accusation that the US Navy deliberately crashed into the Chinese F-8 Fighter? Why is the rest of the world not applying pressure to China for the release of the US service men and women?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

On your first question, I am not sure the Chinese are saying this was a deliberate act that they tried to knock the Chinese fighter down. What they are saying is that it was a reckless and careless act on the part of the US pilot. The US of course is saying that it is the other way round.

But China is basically saying they were carrying out routine monitoring, shadowing the American aircraft when the American pilot suddenly veered into the path of the Chinese plane. Now that, they say, is a reckless act and caused this tragedy of losing the Chinese pilot, losing the Chinese plane and then the US having to make this emergency landing. I am not sure that they are really saying that this was a deliberate act.

As for the rest of world applying pressure to China. Well, different countries have different priorities here. You will see that the UK has actually come out and supported the United States' position. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has come out and said that China should return these airmen and very much supporting the American position. This is not surprising - the UK and US are very close allies.

But many other countries have expressed support for China. Countries in the Middle East, countries in South East Asia have come out and said this is a sign of the way that America behaves towards other countries. It always wants to monitor them, it wants to spy on them and America has really caused this incident. So there has been support and arguments on both sides.


Kaminju Njoroge, Nairobi, Kenya:

What is the mood among the Chinese people? Are there any planned public demonstrations against the US?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

It is very mixed. A lot of people in China probably don't know a great deal of detail about what has happened. What they do know they tend to get from China's state-run media. The agenda here is still very much controlled by the Chinese Government - the Chinese media is all state-controlled.

But, I think there is genuinely anger and concern. After all, they feel that they are the victims here largely. It is a Chinese airman who is missing, presumed dead - he is a man who has a wife and six year-old child. These are quite emotive issues. If it was the other way round and it was a missing US airman, one can suspect that people in the US would be very upset about it.

As regards planned, public demonstrations - as far as we know - no. There have been some sporadic demonstrations outside the US Embassy but there is a huge police presence outside the US Embassy here in Beijing.

It appears at the moment that while the Chinese Government's rhetoric over this is quite strong, they do not want this to turn into something like 1999 for example when there were huge demonstrations outside the US Embassy after the bombing of Beijing's Embassy in Belgrade.


Rick, Grants Pass, OR, USA:

I almost see this stand-off is a cultural thing in that the Chinese want an apology. We feel we did no wrong so we are not wanting to state that. Is that childish and is the USA ignoring a cultural issue, or is it more than that?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

I think it does go deeper than that but I think you have hit the nail on the head. I think this is crucial to the way that this crisis has blown up into something bigger. This seems like a very simple thing - it was an accident - why is everybody getting so upset about this? But I think that the Chinese leadership has been genuinely angered by the way that the new Bush administration in Washington has dealt with this crisis.

On Sunday after it happened and on Monday, the second day after it happened, the US came out very strongly and said you must release our crew - this is an accident, we are not going to admit fault - we are not wrong. I think in China that was perceived as being arrogant and unsympathetic - after all a Chinese has been lost and I think they felt that it was just completely undiplomatic - the US Government should have shown some sympathy and some regret for this incident. Also that it should have been done quietly behind the scenes - perhaps a phone call from President Bush, or perhaps even somebody not so senior. But at least quietly contacting the Chinese and saying - look how should we deal with this, we don't want this to get out of control.

Instead the US Government has come out and made very strong demands of China and I think that is one reason why China has decided to dig in its heels and say - no, we are not going to release this crew until we get a proper apology and an admission of responsibility.


Michael Sandoval, Bellevue, USA:

Has the Pentagon issued an official statement regarding the mission and intent of the crew? Second, do the Chinese conduct reconnaissance missions, by air or sea, in international waters near other nations' territories (including the U.S.)?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

As far as I know the statement has come from the United States and from their Pacific command, that this plane was a routine mission. Although I would say that the Chinese would not agree with that - they would see it as being quite a provocative mission. But these sort of things do go on all the time in international waters along the edges of countries' territorial airspace and waters. That is true not just with China but with other nations - the US and Russia monitored each other in the same way.

Does China monitor the United States in the same way? I think not. This is mainly because the Chinese airforce at the moment simply doesn't have that sort of capability to go long range across the Pacific to fly close to American territory. It simply doesn't have those sort of aircraft - although I think if it did, it probably would.


Bruce de Wert, Wick, Scotland:

Much play is being made of the fact that the Chinese people are angry. What information is being given to them by their government and is it enough for them to make an informed decision on the rights and wrongs of the affair?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

A very good question - I think it gets to the root of how does China's media operate - how is public opinion in China formed.

The information the Chinese people get to form their opinions does still largely come from state-controlled media. State-controlled media is very much the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party still.

If we look at this incident, over the first few days there was very little information put out in the state media and there was very little reaction from ordinary Chinese people - most people didn't know what was going on. But in the last two days there has been a lot of information in the Chinese media and we have seen likewise a response from Chinese public opinion - people on the streets getting more angry, expressing concern about this. So I think it has a very important role.

Are there ways Chinese people can get hold of information - I think there are. In the last ten years Chinese people have started to gain access to other forms of information. The internet has had a profound impact on the ability of people to get information in China. This week we have seen that with this crisis going onto internet chat-rooms in China and onto websites.

There has been a huge amount of exchange of information between people on this issue. There has been all sorts of discussion going on; both technical and political about this incident. There have been quite a wide range of views being expressed - on the one hand, very nationalistic, anti-American views, to people saying - well we shouldn't believe everything we hear from the government.


Husitu, Edinburgh, UK:

There are reports that this whole conflict with China is due to the fact that Jiang Zemin will retire and since he wants his man Hu Jintao to be the next head of the communist party so he's got to act tough so that the army will support him. What is your view on the "power struggle" report?


Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

It is very difficult to know exactly what is going with the Chinese Government in the leadership just because it is so secretive in the way it operates.

Having said that, I think that there is a great deal of evidence to show that Jiang Zemin definitely does want his protégé, Vice President Hu Jintao, to be the next leader in China.

The leadership succession is coming up in about eighteen months - at the end of 2002. All of China's top leaders are now jockeying for position to get their chosen people into power at that leadership meeting.

I think Jiang Zemin also has to placate the military - he wants to stay on as the head of China's central military commission - a very important part of the government in China - after he steps down as president. He therefore cannot be seen at the moment as being soft on a military issue. China's military has lost a pilot, Jiang Zemin has to act tough and act in defence of military interests.

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