Likely announcement of missing pilot's death could offer opportunity for Bush condolences

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 April, 2001, 12:00am

Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yixi felt the heat of reporters' questions and had difficulty providing answers on China's position regarding the spy plane crisis at yesterday's Foreign Ministry briefing.

Mr Sun stonewalled as he struggled to explain why, if China already possessed all the facts surrounding the collision, it did not make the information public and offer proof of American culpability.

And if China already possessed the evidence, then why was it necessary to hold the plane and the crew and conduct a further investigation?

A US EP-3E Aries II surveillance plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island on Sunday after a collision with a Chinese fighter plane. China has detained the 24-member crew of the US plane. The Chinese pilot is missing, presumed dead.

Mr Sun repeatedly said the Americans had broken international and Chinese laws, as well as bilateral agreements. China reserved the right to handle the case as it saw fit, he said.

He declined to reveal what Chinese laws had been broken or whether a trial would follow and several times answered by saying: 'I cannot tell you any specific information.'

He gave no hints as to how long the air crew would be held or under what conditions.

With President Jiang Zemin abroad on a tour of Latin America for the next 12 days, it is feared that no decision will be taken in his absence. Mr Sun stuck to the line that the Chinese people demanded a full explanation and apology from the American side.

He said the US had already set several precedents by apologising for the bombing of the Belgrade Embassy and the sinking of a Japanese trawler.

US-led Nato bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, killing three people, and a US nuclear submarine rammed a Japanese fishing trawler in February. Nine people died after the trawler sank.

Mr Sun struggled to deal with questions as to why the Americans could not inspect the plane or interview the crew. Reporters said this would help the American side determine what happened and therefore whether an apology was necessary.

He shed little light on why the two sides were not co-operating in searching for the Chinese pilot and determining what circumstances led to the collision.

He then returned to the theme of the need for the Americans to show the right 'sincerity' in showing contrition.

This may mean that the expression of regret by Secretary of State Colin Powell will have to be followed by a similar utterance by President George W. Bush for the matter to be closed.

China is preparing the domestic public for the news that the missing Chinese pilot Wang Wei is to be declared dead after a five-day search. That in turn would be a cue for President Bush to voice a ritual expression of condolence.

This might allow the Chinese to show magnanimity and allow the Americans to go home in a few days, thereby bringing the matter to a close.