Relieving tension

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 May, 1999, 12:00am

As the Nato campaign against Yugoslavia drags on it begins increasingly to take on the characteristics of Greek tragedy. Certainly, Nato's still-stated belief that it can drive a man like President Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate through hi-tech, airborne weaponary alone, without the deployment of ground troops, is at best beginning to look like blind arrogance.

The consequences of this arrogance have already been displayed. Nato has bombed civilians in residential areas, people travelling on a train, fleeing Kosovo-Albanian refugees and bus passengers. All have been terrible mistakes and all have harmed Nato's avowed moral superiority. The effect of each misplaced bomb has been a ratcheting up of the intensity of protests against the alliance's strategy.

However, these earlier incidents are now completely overshadowed by the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Quite apart from the deaths, the fallout from this blunder could have far-reaching consequences and threaten to drive Sino-US relations into damaging territory.

Nato must explain itself.

It is hard to believe that the CIA does not know the location of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. It is even featured on simple tourist maps of the city. Nato's initial claim that the bombing was due to 'faulty information' and later that it was caused by an 'anomaly' seem to indicate that someone, somewhere, punched in the wrong coordinates. Perhaps, but whatever the reason, Nato should reveal it, fully and honestly and quickly.

Unsurprising The huge-scale, well-orchestrated protests across the mainland are understandable. Also unsurprising are the strident statements being made in many newspapers. They reflect the justified outrage that people inevitably feel. But claims that the bombing was no accident are simply ludicrous. Nato stood only to lose by its action.

For the authorities in Beijing there is a certain fortuitousness about the timing of the incident. The fury that has erupted may well serve as a distraction for those tempted to mark the approach of June 4. But the question for Beijing now is: having turned on the protest tap so effectively, can it be turned off so easily? Dangerous Condoning and even encouraging such protests, if they remain lawful, could turn out to be a dangerous gambit. The more the fury mounts, the more demands there will be from the protesters for decisive action by mainland authorities. And for Beijing to retaliate against the Nato bombing in anything other than a symbolic manner would be disastrous, not only to China's hopes of WTO admission, but also for the profoundly important issue of Sino-US relations on the broadest front.

There was in Vice-President Hu Jintao's TV appearance last night a strong indication that these dangers are recognised. While the Vice-President expressed indignation at the 'criminal act', he also gave a clear warning that the protests must not be allowed to spiral out of control and threaten 'social stability'.

This is reassuring because what is needed now is for cool heads to take control. The US and Nato must undertake a damage-limitation exercise in earnest. A full explanation of what went wrong and why must be made so there can be no unanswered questions, nor suspicion that the targeting of the embassy was anything other than accidental.

A generous offer of compensation must be made, both to go some way towards easing the agony of the relatives of those killed and also to cover the eventual rebuilding of the embassy. Perhaps just as important, there must be a proper and public apology. Not words of sadness, but a formal expression of apology.

On its part, Beijing must dampen the ardour of the anti-US protests before they threaten to damage Sino-US relations in a way that would benefit no one.