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State Department Says `Intensive Diplomatic Activity' Taking Place Between U.S., China

Aired April 5, 2001 - 12:56   ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: At a time when we're hearing that the standoff with China is easing somewhat and both sides are heavily engaged, we want to hear from the State Department now.

Here's spokesman Richard Boucher.

QUESTION: So this was just purely done out of your own -- you decided that you think foreign ownership is a good thing for NTV.

RICHARD BOUCHER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We have consistently said that we believe in the independence of the media, we believe in the independence of NTV. We have tried to make very clear all along that there should be options, including the options of foreign ownership that would be valuable to maintaining that independence. And so it's not unusual that in this context we would mention that possibility, particularly when it comes to lack of transparency in some of the ownership issues...


QUESTION: So this was done of your own volition.

BOUCHER: Done of our own volition.

QUESTION: Thank you.

BOUCHER: We believe in free press. We believe this is important to maintain the independence and that working out a deal with foreign owners would help maintain the independence.

QUESTION: Serb authorities refused to accept an arrest warrant this morning or Milosevic. They gave technical reasons. But I wonder if you had anything in response to or in reaction to that.

BOUCHER: I don't know that they've refused to accept it. I'm told that the delivery of a warrant is just an administrative procedure; it's not a major event.

Certainly, our fundamental position on this has not changed. We support the tribunal, and we will continue to urge Yugoslavia to cooperate fully with the tribunal in this matter as in others.

QUESTION: So this practically of no substance, right? BOUCHER: That's what I'm told. It's a delivery process rather than a major event.

QUESTION: Could you say who the Chinese ambassador met with this morning, and if he brought a response to the letter sent to Qian Qichen last night and what the secretary has been doing on this issue and everything else?

BOUCHER: OK, that's four things. Let me just answer the last question and dispense with the others.

This morning, the Chinese ambassador came in. He met with Deputy Secretary Armitage for about 20 or 30 minutes. This is part of our continuing discussions with the Chinese. During the night our time, meaning during Thursday China time, Ambassador Prueher met twice with the assistant foreign minister, Zhou Wenzhong.

In all these meetings, we are urging the immediate release of all members of the aircrew, full access to the aircrew until they are released, and, of course, the return of our aircraft.

The ambassador, during his meetings overnight, provided the assistant foreign minister with copies of the secretary's letter to Vice Premier Qian Qichen, which we had passed to the Chinese, which the secretary had handed to Ambassador Yang last night at a meeting that he and Deputy Secretary Armitage had. So that's the process of the meetings that were held.

In terms of what we're discussing, I think we continue to make the point that these people, the aircrew, need to be released. We continue to, as appropriate, express our regret on behalf of the American people for the loss of the Chinese pilot or for the Chinese pilot who remains missing. I think I shouldn't get ahead of myself on that. Obviously, we sympathize with the Chinese family, the pilot's family.

The substance of these meetings, we're going to keep to ourselves in some degree. I would describe, though, as working to resolve the matter, that we have urged the Chinese to act quickly to resolve the matter. We do want to get this matter behind us, and we want the Chinese to work with us toward that end.

QUESTION: Have you made any progress?

BOUCHER: I'm not going to characterize the progress or lack thereof one way or the other.

QUESTION: Are these negotiations?

BOUCHER: I describe them the way I'm going to describe them. I'm going to not go beyond that.

We're having intensive discussions with the Chinese at this point. We are at a sensitive moment. These matters, especially the access to and release of our aircrew are very, very important to us. We want to keep working on this and make sure we do everything we can to find ways to resolve these issues.

QUESTION: We understand that there's no prospect of access to the crew taking place during the nighttime hours in China right now. Does that slow things down at all?

BOUCHER: It is the middle of night in China right now. We have been pressing hard, both in Washington and in Beijing in these meetings, for free and unfettered access to our crew members. I can't give you anything specific at this moment, but we are hopeful that that will occur.

QUESTION: Richard, the secretary remarked that he was at work on the subject at 2:30 in the morning, which is a little early to get up...

BOUCHER: That's right.

QUESTION: ... on your birthday...

BOUCHER: Part three.

QUESTION: ... unless he was baking a cake.

Can you give us some details or fill out the color image that we're getting here, which is the secretary very hard at work at a very unusual hour.

BOUCHER: Let me sort of describe the pattern of the last several days. It's been that we've been working in Washington during the daytime and in China during the nighttime.

And obviously, when you have a situation, such as when Ambassador Prueher has a meeting with the assistant vice minister has another one, it's useful for him to talk to the secretary or Deputy Secretary Armitage in between those.

So I think over the course of the night, maybe starting yesterday evening to this morning, Deputy Secretary Armitage probably talked to Ambassador Prueher twice, maybe more, I'm not certain. I think the secretary talked to him three times. The secretary also talked to, I think, the deputy chief of mission there once between the meetings.

So, as I said, we're in a period of intensive diplomacy. The secretary and the deputy secretary have been working very closely with our ambassador and we, as well as with our colleagues in the White House and other departments of government. So there's been a lot of telephone calls going on, and we are working this issue as hard as we can.

QUESTION: Is there any thought of bringing the military officers from both sides in, either in Beijing or here, to discuss the details of what happened?

BOUCHER: At this point, I'm not going to be able to talk about thoughts or proposals. Sorry. QUESTION: Will the Chinese continue to ask for an apology or seek an apology? Yesterday we went back and forth a little bit about whether an apology would do it or whether there are other things they want, in addition. Can you expand on that at all?

BOUCHER: No, I can't really expand on that. I think you've seen the Chinese public statements. I don't think I've seen the ambassador on TV yet today, but, certainly yesterday evening he was talking about an apology. But I also saw the Foreign Ministry statement that expressed some appreciation for our statement yesterday, that we do, in fact, regret the situation of the Chinese pilot.

QUESTION: Does the recent night's handling of the situation represent a shift of policy from the Bush administration about China, I think a shift in a more positive territory, like it was before elections when China was to be considered more like competitor? After this hard work is now the situation handled more mildly as it was by problems with China during Clinton Administration, what's the reason?

BOUCHER: No, I don't think I would characterize it as a shift in policy. We clearly have a specific and very serious and difficult situation to deal with here, an accident that occurred over international waters and the emergency landing, the consequences thereof, the loss or potential loss of a Chinese pilot. So it's a very complicated and serious situation that occurred.

It's, I think, pure speculation to say that this would have been handled one way or the other at some other moment. This administration is quite clear overall that we want to build a productive relationship with China, that we want to encourage an integration of China into world affairs, into world rules, world systems. That has been the secretary's statement, the president's statements, and others.

And in this particular situation, we have been stressing again and again, in public and with the Chinese, that it is important to resolve this matter quickly, satisfactorily, to see our crew returned, to see our airplane returned, so that we can get on with this broader relationship.

QUESTION: Is the Foreign Ministry statement expressing appreciation enough to give rise to some of these stories that there's a glimmer of hope, a little bit of optimism now? And can you explain what reasoning the secretary used in bumping this up to Qian Qichen and using a letter as the mechanism he told us he was looking for?

BOUCHER: Based on my reading of stories over the last few days, I don't think it takes much reason at all to write stories, so I'm not going to comment on whether there's sufficient grounds for writing "glimmer of hope" stories.


QUESTION: Do you see a glimmer of hope?

BOUCHER: What I will do is not characterize it one way or the other, and you can write what you want. But I'm not going to try to characterize...


QUESTION: Wait. And what about the letter?

BOUCHER: Now, OK, now why did we write a letter to Qian Qichen -- to Vice Premier Qian Qichen?

A number of reasons. He's a responsible leading official of the Chinese government. The secretary talked to him two weeks ago personally, about many, many matters, including the desire to build an overall relationship and to work on the overall relationship. So the secretary thought it was appropriate to write to the vice premier in view of their discussion of the importance of the relationship and discuss how we could resolve these issues and then get on with building that kind of relationship.

QUESTION: And a letter is more effective than a phone call?

BOUCHER: He's traveling with President Jiang Zemin at this point. I think it was a better way to reach him.

QUESTION: You never answered whether you'd had any response to the letter. And secondly, I understand you don't want to go into details, but can you at least tell us whether there are any sort of, you know, compromised proposals or resolution proposals that are floating around out there between you?

BOUCHER: I'm not going to characterize the nature of the discussions or the topics that are being discussed beyond what I've done, so I can't talk about...

QUESTION: But you've had...

BOUCHER: I can't talk about things floating. I can't talk about responses at this point. We're in discussions.

QUESTION: Can you say if there has been a response?

BOUCHER: We're in discussions, and I'll leave it at that.

QUESTION: Richard, is the United States yet prepared to accept China's claim that it is an injured party or the injured party in this? And then secondly, can you take another stab at your explanation of why this plane has sovereign immunity?

BOUCHER: Let me do the two things: First of all, I think on the basic issue, our position remains that it's not possible for us to provide a detailed explanation or a detailed understanding of what went on until we have a chance to talk to our aircrew in a full and unfettered manner.

So many of these questions that you're asking about, you know, whether we accept this, whether we understand that, whether we can explain this, really depend on our getting the kind of full and unfettered access to our aircrew that we've been asking for, both out of a humanitarian need but also ourselves to understand more fully what happened.

Now, we can spend 20 minutes reading legal argument, but let me give you the summary, and if you need more later, I'll talk to you about that.

An aircraft that is legally present in China is entitled to sovereign immunity under principles of customary international law, this aircraft.

The aircraft was operating in international airspace -- that is, beyond 12 miles from the coastline -- when the collision occurred. Under customary international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea convention, it was entitled to operate in the location of the collision over international waters, and we were engaging in traditional military activities, which are legally permissible in international airspace.

International law requires that in the exclusive economic zone that's beyond 12 but within 200 miles of the coastline. Activities are conducted with due regard to China's rights and duties in this zone as a coastal state, for example, rights with respect to marine resources. The activities of our aircraft did not interfere with any such Chinese rights and duties, so we were doing what we were entitled to do in international airspace.

On the issue of the right to land, we had an aircraft that was clearly in distress, once the collision occurred. And it followed standard international procedures. It broadcast a Mayday signal over 121.5 MHz, the international air distress frequency that is monitored around the world.

And then it diverted to the nearest airfield to save our crewmen's lives. Our aircraft had a right under international law and under basic humanitarian considerations to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory.

Our aircraft in China is entitled to sovereign immunity under principles of customary international law.

And at this point, I think I'll leave off, and we can talk later about the Paris convention of 1919, especially article 32. We can talk about the Chicago convention and how that may or may not have pertained. We can give you legal citations from Law and Public Order in Space and give you a few other legal citations.

QUESTION: I won't belabor this now, but we'll do it afterwards. But all of those would relate to the main question, which is the one you haven't answered here, because you're saying we're getting into too many details, which is why it has sovereign immunity once it's on the ground in China. Those what you just cited, Paris, Chicago, Space, whatever, will provide the explanation for why it's entitled sovereign immunity on Chinese soil now?

BOUCHER: Both what I said and the additional information pertained to that because the aircraft was legally operating where it was. It was entitled to make the emergency landing, and it's an aircraft that's entitled to sovereign immunity. So the one flows from the other to the other.

QUESTION: OK, two questions. One, has there been any kind of diplomatic message sent to our embassies or to the governments where the Chinese premier, Jiang Zemin, is going to be touring Uruguay, Chile?

BOUCHER: We're in touch with governments around the world who have been interested in our position and understanding the issue. We've made clear our positions and our interests, particularly our interest in our crew, our regret over the missing Chinese pilot and our desire to see this resolved expeditiously.

To what extent other governments may be having discussions with the Chinese, where it may come up in their conversations, at this point, we don't know.

QUESTION: If Secretary Powell's letter was an attempt to kind of bring it up to a higher level with his personal involvement, have the Chinese responded in kind? And should we expect to see a more personal involvement by Secretary Powell with a commensurate level in China, perhaps Qian Qichen?

BOUCHER: I think that's a variation on the question of, do we have an answer to the letter? I am not able to go into that level of detail of the discussions at this point.

We have said there is intensive diplomacy. There have been a lot meetings. Whether we get a letter back, whether we get it conveyed orally from the Foreign Ministry, will depend on the Chinese.

QUESTION: Well, in the letter...

BOUCHER: And so I don't know exactly what will happen.

What I do expect to happen is that we will continue to have these sort of intensive meetings and discussions with the Chinese.

QUESTION: Can I follow up? In the letter, did Secretary Powell ask that further communications might be brought to this higher level between himself and Qian Qichen, for instance?

BOUCHER: I don't want to characterize the letter, but I don't think that is a particularly important aspect of the situation. What's important is that we work through all levels, all means, to try to resolve this quickly.

QUESTION: How troubling is it that the Chinese imply that the U.S. is not cooperating -- that's the word they use -- you can't see them until you cooperate? Have you been given any implication on what they mean by cooperate and why they would have a reason to say we're not?

BOUCHER: I don't know that I've seen them say that, so I don't think I can characterize it. Maybe I missed something. But I think we have said that we don't see any grounds for impeding our access. We think there should be full and unfettered access, and we continue to maintain...

QUESTION: Well, if you haven't heard that, what's their explanation of why...

ALLEN: Richard Boucher at the State Department, letting us know that the U.S. and China are heavily engaged in discussions. He says we're at a sensitive moment. And, of course, he still says the U.S. wants the release of the Americans immediately and access to that downed plane in the -- on the island of Hainan.

Let's go to CNN's Andrea Koppel, who can tell us more, Andrea, about -- if you can, what's involved in these intense discussions between the two, and does there seem to be some easing today of this standoff?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly what you're seeing, Natalie is, in the words of Richard Boucher, intensive diplomatic activity.

This building has been humming with the sound of meetings all day long, including one with China's ambassador to Washington, Yang Jiechi, who met with the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, this morning. It's the fourth time that the Chinese ambassador has been to this building in the last week.

In it the -- although State Department officials don't want to go into the details as to what were -- what was discussed, one can presume that there may have been a Chinese response to the letter that Secretary Powell gave Ambassador Yang last night. This was a letter from Secretary Powell himself, addressed to China's top diplomat, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, who is traveling with China's president right now and is in Chile -- in fact just arriving there today.

We heard that while we were sleeping here in the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Washington -- excuse me -- the U.S. ambassador to China, Admiral Prueher, delivered the letter; as well, delivered copies of the letter to the Chinese foreign ministry and reiterated the message of the letter, which is, the Bush administration wants to find, Natalie, some kind of mechanisms, some ways -- and they elaborated in the letter as to how they thought that might happen -- to resolve this impasse.

The Chinese -- and it's become almost a broken record here, but the Chinese, on the one hand, saying that they want an apology from the Bush administration. The Bush administration saying they don't think an apology is in order, but they have expressed regret. We've been repeating that word now throughout the last day, ever since Secretary Powell uttered it yesterday afternoon.

And so, the question is whether or not they're going to be able to come up with some sort of acceptable formula to appease both sides -- that the Chinese feel that they've been satisfied, that the U.S. has recognized the loss -- the apparent loss -- of their crewmember and that the U.S. feels that it hasn't accepted culpability for the loss of the Chinese plane. ALLEN: So as the talks continue, we'll stay in touch with you for further developments. Thank you very much, Andrea Koppel at the State Department.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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