The Chinese government released the 24 crew members of a U.S. spy plane today, ending an 11-day standoff with a carefully balanced compromise in which both governments backed down a bit but still could claim a measure of victory.
The crew members lifted off about 7:30 a.m. local time from an airfield here on Hainan island in a chartered jetliner bound for Guam, where the plane landed 4 1/2 hours later. There the Americans were to board a military aircraft bound for Hawaii for debriefings and medical checkups.
"They're doing fine, they're smiling," said Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, who escorted the crew members onto the chartered plane in Hainan. "We're just glad this particular incident is over. That's all our job was--to get the crew out. They're gone. We're going to finish our business and go home."
The breakthrough that ended President Bush's first foreign policy challenge came after Washington said in a letter that it was "very sorry" both for the likely death of a Chinese pilot after the collision of his fighter jet with the U.S. aircraft over the South China Sea and for the spy plane's unauthorized landing at a Chinese military air base.
The letter stopped just short of the formal apology that China has demanded since the April 1 incident. However, it went much further than the original U.S. position, which was that Washington owed no apology for the incident.
A senior U.S. official said the impasse was broken when the Bush administration agreed to insert "very" before "sorry" in the letter from U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. Every word in the letter was negotiated by ranking officials on both sides.
Shortly after receiving the letter, Tang announced that the crew would be released on what he called "humanitarian grounds."
The letter said the two sides will meet beginning next Wednesday to discuss the incident and the return of the U.S. aircraft, an indication that the badly damaged spy plane will not be released for at least a week.
The 21 men and three women from the U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane were driven to the airfield here in minivans equipped with tinted windows, escorted by a caravan of police vehicles. Two decoy vans headed in the opposite direction.
Security Staff Guards Crew's Route
Uniformed and plainclothes Chinese security staff blocked off traffic and stood guard along the entire 25-mile drive from the No. 1 Southern Air Fleet Guest House in downtown Haikou to the Meilan airport.
After a four-hour layover, the Americans were scheduled to depart Guam in an Air Force C-17 transport plane on an eight-hour flight to Hawaii, where they will spend several days in debriefings. The C-17 was expected to arrive at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, at 6:30 a.m. local time today.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department had sent a 13-member "repatriation team" to China to accompany the crew members. The group included psychotherapists and physicians, as well as intelligence officers, so that the crew debriefing could begin.
Quigley said officials wanted to begin the debriefings as soon as possible, so that memories of the accident would remain fresh.
The Pentagon hopes to have the 24 crew members back in the continental United States by Sunday. They will be flown back to their home station, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington.
Break in the Impasse Came Early in Morning
The break in the long standoff came early Wednesday. Bush was still in bed when National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice telephoned just after 5:30 a.m. EDT to tell him about the deal, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
"The president said, 'Good,' leaned over and told [First Lady] Laura that, 'It looks like the matter is going to be resolved,' " Fleischer said.
Bush then headed down to the Oval Office. At 8:25 a.m. he announced the resolution of the dispute with China before taking a scheduled trip to Charlotte, N.C., where he touted his education agenda at a suburban middle school. Later in the day, he addressed thousands of supporters at East Carolina University in Greenville.
"This has been a difficult situation for both our countries," Bush said of the impasse that brought relations between Washington and Beijing to their lowest point in years.
"I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot," he added. "Our prayers are with his wife and his child."
A massive search by Chinese authorities has so far produced no sign of the missing airman, Lt. Cmdr. Wang Wei. The 33-year-old pilot bailed out of his F-8 fighter after it collided with the lumbering, propeller-driven EP-3, which was on an intelligence-gathering mission about 65 miles off Hainan.
The collision sent the Chinese jet plunging into the sea and the U.S. aircraft into a 5,000-foot free fall before its crew regained control and made an emergency landing at Lingshui military air base on Hainan.
Bush's performance drew bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers expressed relief that the standoff was coming to a close. The president had been able for the most part to persuade congressional critics of China--many of them members of his own party--to hold their tongues during the standoff.
Although Bush said Tuesday that negotiations with the Chinese were deadlocked, a senior administration official said Wednesday that "we've been on a path to resolving it for several days now." The draft letter was conveyed to the Chinese "over the weekend" and the word "very" was inserted during the last 24 to 48 hours, the official said.
Asked if the standoff has caused long-lasting damage to Sino-U.S. relations, the official replied: "We'll obviously step back, and we'll take a look at what all of this looks like and what all of this means."
U.S. officials said the first break in the crisis came Friday when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote a letter to Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen expressing "regret" at the loss of the Chinese pilot. Qian's first reaction was to dismiss the letter as "very dissatisfying." But that communication became what Prueher, the chief U.S. negotiator, called the "road map" to Wednesday's agreement.
Talks between Prueher and the Chinese Foreign Ministry began to take place almost daily, apparently to fine-tune successive drafts of the letter.
U.S. Notes Crew Lacked Permission to Land
In the final version, the U.S. government acknowledged that the crippled American plane did not have authorization to land on Hainan, although the crew followed "international emergency procedures."
"We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely," the letter said. As for Wang's family, "we are very sorry for their loss."
Both countries immediately declared victory, although it was clear that neither side achieved all its demands.
Kurt Campbell, one of the Pentagon's top Asia specialists in the Clinton administration, said Bush ended the crisis without specifically acknowledging error or making other concessions that might complicate U.S. policy in Asia.
Despite the administration's rather "extravagant rhetoric in personal terms . . . they didn't cross any of the administrative, operational or legal red lines they said they wouldn't cross," Campbell said.
China claimed to have forced Washington to concede. Its tightly controlled state media Wednesday night characterized the letter as one of apology, although their translation of the letter into Chinese used milder expressions of regret than the term--daoqian--Beijing had demanded.
"America finally apologizes," said the front-page headline in today's Beijing Morning Post.
The meetings scheduled to begin next Wednesday will "include discussion of the causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future, development of a plan for prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft, and other related issues," Prueher's letter said. "We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting."
Although the agreed text of the letter expressed regret that the EP-3 entered Chinese airspace without formal permission, administration officials insisted that the landing was fully in compliance with normal procedures governing emergency landings.
At the Pentagon, officials said the Chinese will not gain much additional intelligence by keeping the spy plane for days or weeks longer.
A detailed debriefing of the crew won't take place until the 21 men and three women reach Hawaii, but crew members have told U.S. diplomats in recent meetings that they were successful in destroying sensitive materials in the 20 minutes that it took the crippled plane to reach Hainan.
Although U.S. experts have expressed concern over the intelligence bonanza Beijing may have reaped, the fate of the plane's crew quickly became the Bush administration's paramount priority as the standoff dragged on into its second week.
Bush's swing through North Carolina took on the trappings of a victory lap.
At East Carolina University, the president received a thunderous welcome Wednesday evening from an estimated 10,000 supporters in Minges Coliseum.
When he told the crowd that a charter aircraft was "close to landing" on Hainan island to pick up the crew, his words were drowned out by deafening cheers of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers welcomed the end of the crisis, although some suggested that China damaged its own cause by dragging out the dispute.
"The president has handled this well," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden said Bush had kept a lid on the situation by not referring to the detained crew members as hostages. Bush's decision to avoid rhetorical escalation, Biden said, "was wise--it showed balance."
Lawmakers Commend Bush Role in Ordeal
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) commended Bush "for his steady handling of this ordeal and for containing the damage to the relationship between our two countries."
But for all the relief at the release of the military personnel, there were warning signs of battles to come. Congress in coming weeks could weigh in on trade with China, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and even Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
For its part, Beijing will vigorously press the U.S. to end its surveillance missions off the Chinese coast, which Washington says it will not do.
"This incident is not fully resolved," Chinese President Jiang Zemin said in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he is on a state visit, the New China News Agency reported.
Implications for Sino-U.S. Relations
"There's a certain euphoria that comes when your service people are released from a situation of tension," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a leading critic of Beijing. "But when they come out, there will be some discussion that we have to have about what this means for U.S.-China relations."
The standoff, she said, "will leave a serious scar."
One former U.S. naval officer with firsthand knowledge of military hostage situations, retired Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, said he was "delighted" at the release of the crew.
Bucher was skipper of the intelligence-gathering ship Pueblo, which was captured in 1968 by North Korea. He and 83 of his crew members endured 11 months of brutal captivity.
"I knew we had a hell of a lot better chance in dealing with the Chinese than the North Koreans," said Bucher, 73, who lives in suburban San Diego. "The Chinese do some brutal things, but they know better than to mistreat American service personnel. We've probably lost the plane, but that's a cheap price to save 24 American lives."
Chu reported from Hong Kong, Ni from Haikou and Chen from Washington and North Carolina. Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Paul Richter and Norman Kempster in Washington and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
'We Are Very Sorry for Their Loss'
The following is the text of U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher's letter to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan:
Dear Mr. Minister:
On behalf of the United States Government, I now outline steps to resolve this issue.
Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss.
Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures. We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely. We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew.
In view of the tragic incident and based on my discussions with your representative, we have agreed to the following actions:
Both sides agree to hold a meeting to discuss the incident. My government understands and expects that our aircrew will be permitted to depart China as soon as possible.
The meeting would start April 18, 2001.
The meeting agenda would include discussion of the causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future, development of a plan for prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft, and other related issues. We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting.
Joseph W. Prueher Source: Associated Press
Semantics of 'Sorry': Adding "very" to "sorry" in U.S. letter of regret was key to ending impasse, A14
Text of Letter: The U.S. ambassador's letter to China's foreign minister sets an agenda for meetings, A13
Good News: Family members express relief and disbelief that their loved ones are coming home, A13