Words matter as US, China seek to resolve crisis

What's in a word?

The United States, while rejecting China's demand for an "apology", officially expressed "regret" on Wednesday over the presumed death of a Chinese pilot in last weekend's mid-air collision with a U.S. spy plane off the south China coast.

Experts say this semantic duet could open the door to resolving the crisis that has left the U.S. plane and its 24-member crew under detention at a Chinese airfield.

"If a form of words can be found that expresses regret over the damage done to the Chinese but does not allege that the U.S. action itself was improper, I think that is something we can do" that can eventually end the impasse, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said on PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer.

There was talk but no official announcement in Washington about sending a special envoy to discuss the matter with Beijing and setting up an independent commission to investigate the collision.

Chinese leaders, who have taken what the Americans consider a tough line since the start of the stand-off, hardened their position on Wednesday when President Jiang Zemin personally repeated a demand for a U.S. "apology."

China invested even more political capital in the demand when, hours later, its new envoy to Washington, Yang Jiechi, went on CNN TV to deliver the message publicly to Americans.

Yang, who is well-known to many Bush administration officials and their allies, said there could be no solution to the impasse until the United States accepted responsibility.

He described a U.S. apology as "very, very important."

But on another TV program, he also showed interest in a settlement, saying the incident should have been resolved "a long time ago."

The U.S. government was adamant in refusing an apology, which might imply the military crew of the EP-3 surveillance aircraft had acted in error in patrolling the Chinese coast and engaging in "listening" activities.

"The accident took place over an international airspace, over international waters, and we do not understand any reason to apologize. The United States did not do anything wrong," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer insisted.

China asserts the U.S. caused the collision when its spy plane veered into the Chinese fighter jet.

But the Americans reject that notion, saying there is no way the EP-3, which has a maximum speed of 250 miles per hour, could cause a crash with a nimble 600-mile-per-hour jet.

Ross Munroe, an Asia expert with the Center for Security Studies, said a U.S. apology "would be a disaster," in part because China is using the accident to try to force the United States to end surveillance flights in the South China Sea.

"That would be the beginning of the end (and would) turn the South China Sea into a Chinese Lake," Munroe told CNN.

Not long after Yang spoke on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before television cameras outside the State Department.

"We regret that the Chinese plane did not get down safely and we regret the loss of life of that Chinese pilot," who is missing and presumed dead, Powell said.

"But now we need to move on and we need to bring this to a resolution," he said, adding that the U.S. side was doing everything it could to talk to the Chinese and "exchange explanations" about what happened to cause the collision.

The U.S. plane made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island after colliding with the Chinese jet, which crashed.

While the U.S. focus has been on the plight of its crew, Yang said Americans must appreciate Chinese concern for its pilot, who is missing.

Powell's remarks seemed an effort to show a U.S. sensitivity about that apparent loss of Chinese life.

Yang on the Lehrer Newshour said China would need "further response" from the U.S. side beyond Powell's remarks.

But while no early breakthrough seemed likely, experts saw a willingness to keep a dialogue going.

"I think there is a way around this" standoff, said Cheng Li, a Chinese expert at Hamilton College in Pennsylvania.

Because of China's internal political struggles, "at the moment, it's too soon for China to be soft but eventually I think they will return the (U.S.) crew members and it is highly likely they will return the airplane," he added.

Kissinger said China's demand for an "apology" derives from 150 years of feeling discriminated against by colonial powers.

Experts said many Chinese leaders and intellectuals resent what they consider American arrogance.

The U.S. bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade during NATO's 1999 campaign to halt Yugoslavia's crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo is still fresh in their minds.

Washington insisted that bombing was accidental but China never accepted the explanation.