American experts on China who claim to be close the Chinese Embassy are floating the notion that China accept as final the latest statement of regret for the incident by Secretary of State Colin Powell on Sunday's CBS show "Face the Nation," the source said.
This would mean that Washington and Beijing discreetly agree to swallow differing interpretations of what Powell said. The key to the possible solution would be that Beijing would be allowed publicly to interpret Powell's words as including the apology that President Jiang Zemin has demanded.
Jiang said Tuesday in Montevideo, Uruguay, "I trust in the ability of both countries to resolve the issue." But, he added, China's position was "sufficiently clear," and he repeated earlier demands for a U.S. apology.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao earlier called Washington's official response so far, including Powell's comments on Sunday, "unacceptable" and highly unsatisfactory.
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, posted on its Web site Tuesday a report that "Powell has admitted that the ill-fated U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane did violate China's air space, and said he was sorry for that." That was a reference to landing the plane in China after it was damaged in the midair encounter with a Chinese fighter jet, which the U.S. says caused the collision.
Powell's carefully chosen comments included the words "sorry" and "regret" and "sorrow."
Powell went on to stress, "But that can't be seen as an apology accepting responsibility."
Asked Tuesday about the Xinhua claim that Powell had said he was sorry that the United States had violated Chinese airspace, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher responded: "What the secretary stated is clear. There are transcripts on the public record. You can look at everything he said Sunday on the TV shows. So rather than reading a report of a report, I would tend to read what the secretary of state actually said, and leave it at that."
Nonetheless, the Xinhua statement focused heavily on Powell's expressions of regret, also quoting him as saying: "There is a widow [the wife of missing Chinese pilot Wang Wei] out there, and we regret that. We regret that her husband was lost."
And it made reference to Powell's appearance on Fox TV Sunday, quoting him as saying: "We have expressed regrets, and we expressed our sorrow, and we are sorry that a life was lost. The only life lost at this point was that of a Chinese pilot. And so I think it's a very proper thing to express our regrets and sorrow over that."
It concluded with what has become Chinese boilerplate: "The Chinese government has made solemn representations with the U.S. side, demanding that Washington bear full responsibility for the incident and apologize to China."
It would be highly risky to allow Washington and Beijing to draw differing interpretations of Powell's apology, opening Chinese and U.S. officials to sharp and probing questioning in future news conferences and before congressional committees.
One of the motives behind the proposed deal, UPI was told, is to resolve the crisis and get the crew members home before the U.S. Congress returns to Washington after the spring break, possibly adding to the political pressures on the White House.
Adding to the potential confusion is the linguistic distinction between the Chinese words for sorry, bao qian, and apology, dao qian. Asked about this possible confusion at a news conference in Beijing Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi replied that the U.S. side knew what it was required to do.
The Chinese have not said why they refuse to apologize to America for causing the collision and abducting the 24 crew members.
The congressional source who told UPI about the possible exit strategy said that it centered on the concept that "if the United States does not publicly and directly contradict this Chinese interpretation, then supposedly the crew can come home before the Congress returns, and the announcement of the deal in a day or two will head off any Easter Sunday coverage."
"Several U.S. China experts have advised the Chinese about all this. Credit for the creative solution is going to a joint approach, which supposedly augurs well for working with the Chinese rather than confronting them," the source said.
"At a minimum, it is a trial balloon from the Chinese side that some in the administration like enough to call the U.S. press and others about."
On Hainan Island, U.S. defense Attaché Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock met Tuesday with the detained U.S. crew for the fifth time. The crew told him they were aware of the sensitive situation and the impasse that prevented their release.
"They have great faith in what's taking place," he said. "They fully understand the circumstances that they are under," he said.
Sealock briefed Bush by phone and said the crew's spirits were superb. The crew had more freedom to move within the guesthouse where they have been detained on a military base and they have received copies of China's official English language newspaper, the China Daily.
In Washington, a several U.S. congressional groups that had planned trips to China during their break have canceled their arrangements, encouraged to do so by the State Department, officials told UPI.
The official said Monday that "most of the congressional delegations had decided not to go before consulting us. In all cases we made sure to say it was their decision, but when asked directly for advice we said it was probably not a good time to go."
In at least one case, Powell advised a lawmaker leading a delegation against going to China, the official said.
To date, separate congressional delegations led by Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, Don Nichols, R-Okla., Richard Shelby R-Ala., and Rep. David Dreier. R-Calif., have canceled trips to China. In addition, a conference arranged by Aspen Institute for 20 U.S. lawmakers in China has been scuttled.
"It was Senator Shelby's thought that there would be nothing to discuss with Beijing when they were holding 24 American service men and service women," his spokeswoman Andrea Andrews told UPI.
The canceled trips may be only the tip of the iceberg in freezing U.S. China relations. After a bitter congressional fight over Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China last year, some U.S. lawmakers that supported the bill are changing their minds. Because Beijing is not likely to gain full membership in the World Trade Organization in time, Congress may well have another bite at the China trade apple this year.
Last year PNTR passed the House by 237 votes to 197, so if only 20 votes flip this year the House could vote to reverse that position. House International Relations Committee chairman, Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who supported PNTR last year, changed his position last week in light of the spy plane row.
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