U.S.-China Spy Plane Standoff
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JIM LEHRER: Now, some analysis from James Sasser, who was the U.S. Ambassador to China during the Clinton administration; Larry Wortzel, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. He served as Army attache in Beijing in the late 1990s. Yu Maochun, a professor of history at the Naval Academy. He was born in China; he’s been a U.S. citizen since 1998; and Jonathan Landay, national security correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.
JIM LEHRER: A better tone today, anything more than a better tone do you believe, what you’ve been told?
JONATHAN LANDAY: It doesn’t seem that way, although there were two other, there were two significant things that happened, I think. One is that the Chinese did discuss the plane and actually took the American proposal for how to bring it back to the United States. The second thing that happened was they accepted an American proposal in which the United States suggested that these discussions continue in what is known as a maritime consultative commission that was set up between the United States military and the Chinese military. That commission was supposed to meet on Monday. The commission meeting has been canceled to give both sides time to look at the issues, prepare their cases, so that if the Chinese do accept that proposal, it can then move forward.
JIM LEHRER: Now the proposal that we have on the table for returning the plane; is that basically a mechanical proposal — I mean we would come in with mechanics, fix the plane and take off or put it in a box, or that kind of thing?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Essentially yes, the United States would have to send technical experts in to look at the plane, assess whether it can be repaired there in Hainan island and flown off or whether the damage is such that the plane can actually be physically lifted up and put on a barge and towed away or taken apart and packed up in crates.
JIM LEHRER: And is considered significant that the Chinese actually accepted that proposal — I mean they didn’t accept it. They accepted it physically, they didn’t accept it – of course — as something they would do?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Right, and the way it looks is this delegation was not empowered to make decisions. This delegation was strictly to take American proposals and convey them to the higher leadership, which is where all decisions are made in China.
JIM LEHRER: Ambassador Sasser, how do you read this? How do you read the significance of what happened today?
JAMES SASSER: I read it as some progress. The Chinese described the meeting as frank and leading to mutual understanding. We said it was productive and business-like. So I think that is some progress. I was encouraged that the Chinese delegation was led by one of their diplomats and not by one of their generals. Lu Shumin, a man who led the Chinese delegation is a very able diplomat. That is the good news. The bad news is he is not at a high enough level that he can actually negotiate and make decisions. So we’ve terminated these meetings as of now, but I think on a fairly cordial note given the circumstances, the first meeting was not cordial at all, very acrimonious but — now -
JIM LEHRER: The same people, though – the same people on both sides –
JAMES SASSER: — with the same people -
JIM LEHRER: So what do you think -
JAMES SASSER: The first day was a tough day — so tough that our ambassador who by the way has done a terrific job, Admiral Preuher went to the Chinese foreign ministry the next morning before the afternoon meeting was to resume, and gave them some sort of information, I suspect, telling them that if things didn’t improve, we weren’t going to go forward with the meeting that afternoon.
So now, we’ve concluded these two meetings and I think it moves back now into normal diplomatic channels with Admiral Preuher doing the negotiating for us and probably a vice minister of foreign affairs empowered to speak with more authority doing the negotiating for the Chinese.
JIM LEHRER: Let’s go back to your first statement – the good news was there was a diplomat rather than a military person, why is that good news?
JAMES SASSER: Well, I think the foreign ministry, the Chinese foreign ministry in my view would like very much to get this episode behind them. They have a lot invested as does President Jiang in building a good relationship with the United States for a lot of reasons.
I think the Chinese military, their testosterone level is pretty high at this point because they lost an aircraft; they lost a pilot. We landed on their airfield they claim without getting permission, although we say we were giving a “Mayday” call; I suspect we were. So if they sent their military people to lead the delegation, it would have been indicative I think they really weren’t looking for some sort of resolution.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Wortzel, how do you read what happened today?
COL. LARRY WORTZEL (Ret.): Well, I think it is as the ambassador said a positive step. I’m heartened that the United States has insisted — as it should — on the important principles of free navigation of international air space; and the fact that the Chinese today discussed that and listened to that and set a date to begin to talk about rules of the road so both sides can get out and safely take care of their military duties, I think is very important for the future.
JIM LEHRER: What about the return of the airplane? Is that — is there any reason to believe that China is never going to allow the return of that plane?
COL. LARRY WORTZEL (Ret.): I think it’s going to be like a slow oozing wound. I have never seen the Chinese return the equipment of detained military personnel or attaches. We — the United States in ’89 had a few of their F-8 fighters that were here to be rebuilt under a defense cooperation program. After the Tiananmen massacre, when military contacts were stopped, they stayed here for as long as five years.
JIM LEHRER: We kept their planes here.
COL. LARRY WORTZEL (Ret.): We kept their planes here for five years in storage, charged them the storage fees so I think there is some bookkeeper somewhere in Beijing that is not in a hurry.
JIM LEHRER: I got you. How do you read — how do you read China’s position on this? What do they want to come out of these negotiations, do you think, in exchange for the airplane or in exchange for something?
YU MAOCHUN: I think China is divided on this issue; I think from the diplomatic circle, I think they really want to return the plane as quickly as possible because this is a very unpleasant reminder of the ferocity with which this whole incident has been carried out. Therefore from the American sides Americans want to feel the mood of China, because China has been very moody over this whole incident. And we don’t know exactly who’s calling the shot — I assume the military is holding the upper hand, but so –
JIM LEHRER: You don’t read it the way the ambassador does — that the fact that somebody from the foreign ministry representing Chinese in these negotiations is a good sign?
YU MAOCHUN: It’s a good sign on the diplomatic front. I don’t think China’s diplomats carry that weight in the ultimate decision making process. The military has reached its goals so far I think. The Americans — you know — I think we have successfully destroyed the sensitive equipment and materials so for the Americans it’s a matter of prestige, I assume – so it’s American property; and it ought to be returned. From the Chinese point of view, if it’s destroyed, maybe there is less value for them. So this matter has more political implications than pure military utility.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe from China’s points of view there is a symbolic thing, a pride thing involved here in keeping that airplane and not returning it to the United States?
YU MAOCHUN: Absolutely. But in addition to think I think this is a golden opportunity for the military to claim greater relevance in Chinese politics. One of the most visible person in the whole episode is the Chinese defense minister who has made all sorts of speeches. One of the speeches he made was we have to turn the enthusiasm, the emotions stirred up by this incident into building a stronger Chinese military. That is potentially very dangerous I think if the Chinese national agenda, which has so far been focused on economic development is taken over by the military agenda, and –
JIM LEHRER: So the plane would become something used in parades and put on display somewhere to kind of rally the folks?
YU MAOCHUN: I think that is the nature of all the behaviors so far.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the importance ever that, Mr. Ambassador, the importance of the airplane, from our point of view, why do we need it back? What are we — what should we be willing to risk to get it back?
JAMES SASSER: Well, initially we said we wanted the airplane back because it was the principle of the thing. Now it has been my experience that when nations or individuals, start negotiating by saying it’s the principle of the thing, that you are getting into some real trouble. I tend to agree with Larry Wortzel, it’s probably going to be slow coming back. I disagree with our distinguished professor here; I know the General Chi Haotian as does Colonel Wortzel; my experience was him was he was not that hard edged. Rather than being what you would call a fighting general he was a more of a political general. He was a commissar initially in the Chinese Army. My impression was that he was pretty subservient to the Chinese political leadership.
I don’t — I think there maybe some pressure here to try to get the Chinese defense budget up or try to recapture some status and prestige for the Chinese military. They suffered a blow when one of their trusted senior colonels defected — or at least they think he defected — to the United States just a few months ago. And they’ve had some egg on their face for a while. We keep flying these flights up and down their coast, and they just have to sort of sit and watch it and they haven’t liked that at all.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
COL. LARRY WORTZEL (Ret.): We’ve been actually in very serious discussions with the Chinese military about these flights, and about –
JIM LEHRER: Is that going on –
COL. LARRY WORTZEL (Ret.): I can go back to 1988 talking to their navy staff and they understand what is going on here. I think that General Chi in this instance is not really being completely subservient to his political masters. I think there is real jockeying for power going on, and that the military — that Jiang Zemin can’t be sure he is going to get the complete support of his military when they think they can drive the agenda.
YU MAOCHUN: It’s true the Chinese military is in complete control by the party. There was a speech made on April 4th. He stressed that point. However, the fragility of the Chinese American relationship is caused by the contingencies, on the operational level granting a visa to certain politicians from Taiwan or some accident happened over the international water. It is the military that has the operational control over these matters. If they want to make the situation very unpleasant to a civilian leadership, if they want to push its own agenda, they have plenty of opportunity to do things like that. They can create these contingencies to make this whole relationship very tense.
JIM LEHRER: Do you read the situation as if they are going to do this?
YU MAOCHUN: I don’t think there is any clear sense that they have the policy spelled out on this but I think it is based upon the consequences of the incident and the fallout — I think the military is the biggest winner of all.
JIM LEHRER: Now from the U.S. point of view, is — these meetings are to continue and as Ambassador Sasser said and also the spokesman said through diplomatic – I mean, does that mean that the Pentagon and our military is now out of this?
JONATHAN LANDAY: I don’t think so at all. I mean they — we have made the military the lead on these negotiations, at least up till now because we — the United States sees this as being a military matter. And in fact if you listened to the State Department briefing today, they were stressing how they thought it was a good idea that these discussions resume in the military maritime — in the maritime military consultative commission. Whether or not the Chinese accept that we have to wait and see but I suspect they will.
JIM LEHRER: How did you speed read, Mr. Wortzel the statement from the Pentagon spokesman that the surveillance flights, he wouldn’t say when but he confirmed again that they will continue. They may even be happening now.
COL. LARRY WORTZEL (Ret.): I hope they are.
JIM LEHRER: You do hope they are?
COL. LARRY WORTZEL (Ret.): Oh, absolutely. I think this is a very, very important principles not only to the United States, but to Japan, Korea — the Republic of Korea, just to go down the South China Sea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines where China’s expansive maritime claims that they hope to have the United States tacitly accept by stopping flights really eat into the claims of all these other countries.
JIM LEHRER: Ambassador Sasser, though, if we did start — start say if we did a flight tomorrow and Chinese airplanes went up again, would that be seen as an act of provocation on our part?
JAMES SASSER: I think it could be. I think we would be wise to suspend these flights until this whole issue has sort of come back down to earth and been resolved. If we began the flights I think immediately, and it appears that we may be doing that, the Department of Defense I read yesterday either indicated that they might start the flights, not fly them in the South China Sea but fly them up in the North where the Chinese fighters are less aggressive, but if we were to begin these flights, I think, right now, I think it could be seen as a provocation. We also have to realize now the Chinese embassy here in Washington was saying today that we fly 200 of these flights a year. And they are indicating — not saying it, but implying that, look, just don’t fly so many of them.
JIM LEHRER: You don’t have to stop them. Just don’t fly so many?
JAMES SASSER: They are not saying that and I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but there is some implication if there weren’t so many it won’t be quite so objectionable.
JIM LEHRER: We have to leave it there. Thank you all four very much.