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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Condoleezza Rica Addresses Policy Toward China; Senators Debate Standoff; What Action Should Be Taken Toward China?

Aired April 8, 2001 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It is noon here in New York, 9:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 8:00 p.m. in Moscow and midnight in Beijing. Wherever you are watching from around the world, thanks for joining us from this two-hour Late Edition.

We'll get to our interview with President Bush's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, shortly. But first, let's get the latest on our top story, the U.S.-China standoff.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: President Bush is spending the weekend at Camp David. He's monitoring the standoff with China from there, receiving regular briefings from his national security advisor, Condoleeza Rice.

She joins us now live from nearby Thurmont, Maryland.

BLITZER: Dr. Rice, good to have you back on LATE EDITION.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Nice to be with you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Dr. Rice.

How preoccupied is the president with this standoff with China?

RICE: Well, the president is monitoring the situation quite closely; he's very involved in the decision-making. As you might imagine, this is the kind of situation that one not only monitors but constantly looks at what is going on and tries to adjust our response. And he is very much involved in the back and forth that is now going on in diplomatic channels. He has talked several times during this crisis, not only with me, but with Secretary Powell, who is also in constant contact with our ambassador.

So the president is busy, but I would not call it "preoccupied."

BLITZER: A lot of people have simply asked, why not simply pick up the phone and speak with the president of China, Jiang Zemin, and resolve this matter with one phone call?

RICE: We really believe that we are using the most effective means to try and deal with this crisis at this time. The Chinese made clear very early on that they believe this should be resolved through foreign ministry channels.

It is also clear and true, Wolf, that one can only have the president of the United States pick up the phone to the president of China once. And so one wants to use that at a time when it might really make a difference. The president shouldn't be his own negotiator in this circumstance.

BLITZER: This latest development involves this draft letter that we heard Major Garrett, our White House correspondent, reporting about, a letter from the president to the wife of the pilot who is still missing, the jet-fighter pilot. Tell us about this letter. What's the purpose of this letter?

RICE: The president is simply responding in a humanitarian way to an expression from the pilot's wife of her grief and dismay at what has happened to her husband. They're clearly elements of the pilots wife's letter with which we do not agree, but the president really felt and it does say what kind of person he is, it says what kind of people we are as Americans, that she has in fact lost her husband, her son has lost a father and the parents of this pilot have lost a son, and so the president simply wanted to respond on humanitarian grounds. And that's the nature of the letter.

BLITZER: You know, in her letter to the president, which was released on Friday, there was one passage that's received a lot of attention. Let me read it to you, Dr. Rice.

It says this: "In this serious matter with irrefutable facts and the responsibility completely resting on the U.S. side, you" -- referring to the president -- "are too cowardly to voice an apology and have been trying to shirk your responsibility repeatedly and defame my husband groundlessly."

I'm sure there will be people saying should the president be responding to this woman, as grieving as she is right now, after she's called him, in effect, a coward?

RICE: Well, one understands that this is a time of grief for this woman. Obviously the United States, and we've made very clear, that we believe that this was an accident, that the United States has done nothing wrong. We believe that we're responding to Chinese concerns, and we want the Chinese government to respond to our concerns.

We're very, very pleased that the American pilot was able to bring this severely disabled aircraft down in an emergency landing, so that the lives of our 24 crew members could be saved.

But the president is taking the high ground here, and he's simply responding to the expression of grief in the widow's letter and to nothing else.

BLITZER: Some Americans have said, "Why not simply apologize, bring those 24 crew members home?" In effect, the expression of regret, Secretary Powell earlier today saying he was sorry that this resulted in the loss of that Chinese jet-fighter pilot. Why not simply go one further step and formally apologize?

RICE: The United States has done nothing wrong, and the facts have to be established in this. We've offered to the Chinese government a way to have a discussion about the facts.

But the United States -- there's no evidence that the United States has done anything wrong. We were within international waters, we were in international airspace when this collision occurred. And so an apology is really not appropriate.

What we're saying is that of course we regret the loss of life of the pilot, if that is what has happened, and it is really too bad that this tragic accident happened. But an apology is not forthcoming.

BLITZER: The vice premier of China, Qian Qichen, wrote to Secretary Powell on Saturday. Among other things, he said this. He said, "Regrettably, the U.S. statement on this incident so far is unacceptable to the Chinese side, and the Chinese people have found it most dissatisfying."

That doesn't seem to suggest that the two sides are on the verge of an agreement that will result in the release of those 24 Americans.

RICE: We laid out some time ago now for the Chinese government a kind of road map to try and resolve this crisis. The situation has gone on too long, and it is time now to resolve the problem.

We believe that we are still on that road map, although clearly there have been a few detours and there's been some bumpiness along the way. But we do believe that we're on a path that could resolve this crisis.

I will say this, the longer that this goes on, however, the more damage that will be done to the U.S.-China relationship, whether we want it to or not. It is very clear that there are high emotions on both sides.

The Chinese government should not under estimate on this side either the feeling of the American people that this was an emergency landing of a crew that was in distress and that we now need to resolve this so that there is no damage, no further damage to U.S.-China relations.

BLITZER: There is a wide spread sense, especially at the Pentagon and the U.S. military, that the Chinese pilot who is missing was responsible for getting much to close to that EP-3 U.S. surveillance plane. That he was acting recklessly, endangering not only is own life but the lives of those 24 Americans on board the EP- 3.

Should he be responsible? Do you believe that Chinese pilot is responsible for this collision?

RICE: I don't think it is helpful to try rehearse, at this point in time, what happened in this accident. We need to try and get the crew back. The Chinese government is in a position to do that. We have offered a forum in which we can discuss what happened. We have offered a forum in which we can discuss trying to avoid future accidents in the future. But I don't think it is helpful right now to try and rehearse what happened. We don't have all the facts.

We do know, though, that the American pilot had to make an emergency landing, that he did so with great skill, and that as a result we have 24 American crewmen who are alive and who will hopefully be returned to their families very soon.

BLITZER: Are those kinds of surveillance flights off the coast of China continuing? Have they resumed since the incident a week ago?

RICE: Well, I am not going to talk about what we are doing in terms of our surveillance program.

I will say that American reconnaissance flights are a part of our broad national security strategy. They are important to our broad national security strategy. America is a peaceful country, and our role in the Asia Pacific is to try and deter conflict. Our efforts to gather information, our reconnaissance flights, help to protect the United States, to help to protect our forces in the region and help to protect our allies. And so they are an important part of a broad national security strategy.

BLITZER: And presumably, once this issue is resolved, once the 24 Americans are back home, the U.S. will continue those surveillance flights off the coast of China?

RICE: Well, certainly they are a part of our broad national security strategy, and the reconnaissance flights remain an important tool for the United States in helping to keep peace.

BLITZER: What do you make of the fact that the last meeting that Brigadier General Neal Sealock had with the Americans on Hainan Island only involved a portion, we are told only 8 of the 24 Americans were allowed to see General Sealock at that meeting. What does that mean to you?

RICE: Well, we have clearly said to the Chinese that we want access to our people and we want unfettered access to our people. We are very proud and very happy to report that they seem to be doing well. They are in high spirits.

The eight were chosen by the United States. They were not chosen for us to see so we have some comfort that they were representative of the condition of the crew in general. But it isn't helpful, obviously, when General Sealock asked to see the entire crew, if he sees only eight.

But we are trying to keep our eye on the ball here, and that is that we and the Chinese government have a way forward. We have a way out of this. It is time to take that way out of it, so that we will not see damage to U.S.-China relations. Eventually, this relationship needs to get back on track. It is going to be harder to get it back on track the longer this situation continues. BLITZER: Well, why don't you spell out, just for the record, what the way out of this impasse is. You have said a couple times now that there is a game plan that has been agreed upon. What specifically are the steps that the United States is proposing?

RICE: Well, Wolf, this is a sensitive time, and I'm not going to get into details of what we are discussing in diplomatic channels with the Chinese. But it is very clear that we have put ideas on the table, that we are talking about how to get out of this.

And it involves, obviously, a willingness to discuss what happened. It involves a willingness to try to establish fully the facts. It clearly involves understanding that we know that the Chinese are unhappy and upset about the loss of life and we, too, regret that.

But I'm not going to go into further detail except to say that it is time to resolve this. It's time to resolve it now, so that we can get on with U.S.-China relations. The longer that this goes on, we are not going to be able to contain the damage to U.S.-China relations.

BLITZER: There is a lot of anger on Capitol Hill in the U.S. Congress, in the Senate as well as the House of Representatives. The Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, over the weekend, was on CNN's Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields.

And he spoke bluntly in terms of how he defines the situation of those 24 Americans. Listen to this excerpt from that interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. HENRY HYDE (R), ILLIONOIS: I would call them hostages. They're being held against their will, and five days is a rather long time especially if you're the one being held in detention. So as time goes on, this situation will intensify, will get more difficult, and I should think..."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Are they hostages those 24 Americans, Dr. Rice?

RICE: Our crew men and women are being detained, but we have said to the Chinese the important thing is to get them out. That's what we're focused on. We're focused on the fact that they seem to be in good condition. That is a very great relief to the president, a very great relief to the American people and an even greater relief to their families.

But let me say, the longer this goes on, the more difficult the situation is going to get. And I'm not going to characterize beyond that, except to say that it is time to resolve this situation and to move on.

BLITZER: What can you tell us about the success of the crew in sanitizing or destroying some of the classified equipment and information that was on board the EP-3 just as it made that emergency landing?

RICE: Well, there are standard operating procedures, and we have to assume that the crew went through as many of them as they could. We won't know and won't have a full picture of what happened until we have our crew back and we're able to engage in full debriefing of them. But I'm certain that they did the very best job that they could. This was an extremist situation, and we're very proud from what we know of the ability of this crew to get down safely.

BLITZER: There has been some criticism of the administration's handling of the policy in this past week, from the president sounding very forceful in the early days, more conciliatory in more recent days. Has there been a shift in tone in what the president has been saying over this past week? And if so, why?

RICE: When the president went out on Monday, in particular, you have to remember that we have not seen our crew. We have been told by the Chinese that they were fine. But we wanted to see the crew and the president felt that a very firm message to the Chinese that access to our crew was an absolute imperative was important. He went on the next day to say that it was time to let them go, and to say that in fact we needed to get this over so that we could realize our hopes for a good relationship with China.

Now, one is always looking at the situation as it unfolds. There hasn't been a change in our position. Our position is the crew must come home and we must establish a way to establish facts if that would be useful to the Chinese government.

But moving forward is going to be possible only when the crew is home and only when this situation is resolved in a reasonable length of time so that there is not further damage. That position has not changed. We are not apologizing to the Chinese government, because we've done nothing wrong. Nothing has changed in this position. I think the president has been completely consistent.

BLITZER: We're almost out of time, Dr. Rice. I just want to read to you an excerpt from an editorial in the new issue of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine in Washington, which is very, very critical of the way the Bush administration has handled this standoff.

Here's an excerpt: "President Bush has revealed weakness and he has revealed fear -- fear of the political, strategic and economic consequences of meeting a Chinese challenge. Having exposed this weakness and fear, the Chinese will try to exploit it again and again."

And then it goes on to say: "The American capitulation will also embolden others around the world who have watched this crisis carefully to see the new administration's metal tested." The Weekly Standard editorial signed by Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol, the editors of that magazine.

Those are very strong words criticizing the way the administration has handled this policy. RICE: Well, with all due respect to our colleagues who signed that editorial, it bears no resemblance to what the Bush administration has been doing in policy toward China.

We've made very clear to the Chinese that we expect our people back and we expect them back soon. We've made very clear to them that the United States is not going to apologize for something that it did not do, and we've made clear to them that we are willing to address the concerns of the Chinese government.

Now, it is also true that this is an important relationship with China. We're saying to the Chinese government daily, and indeed this morning, that the resolution of this situation has to happen and has to happen quickly if there's not to be further damage to U.S.-China relations.

I think that this has been a policy that has been consistent, it has shown a willingness to address the concerns of the Chinese government. But it is time to move on, and I really do hope that the Chinese government gets that message.

BLITZER: We're out of time, Dr. Rice, but I do want to point out to you, as you probably realize, this program is being seen live around the world, including in China.

When you say "quickly," is there a specific message that you'd like to send the leadership in China that may be watching this program in Beijing right now, how quickly the president wants this situation resolved?

RICE: Well, the message is going through diplomatic channels, and it is going, of course, over the airwaves. And it's the same message that we've been giving now several days, which that is we have a road map out of this. We've been working it with the Chinese government.

Our people should not be kept there while the governments continue whatever political disagreements there may be. Once our people are home and ready to come home, we are ready to discuss the incident and try to establish further the facts.

But everything that we see says that the United States of America, our pilot, our crew, acted responsibly, that they acted in a way that saved lives, and we are very pleased that they were able to do that. Obviously we regret the loss of life on the Chinese side, but it is time to put this behind us and to move forward.

BLITZER: Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security advisor, it was kind of you to join us on this Sunday. Thank you very much.

RICE: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And when we return, two veteran members of the U.S. Senate weigh in on the latest round of tense times between the United States and China. We'll talk with Virginia Republican John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: I think what we should do is back the president. He's the commander in chief.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: I don't think we should let any daylight exist between the president and the rest of us, regardless of party or anything else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush getting bipartisan support on the stand- off with China from U.S. Republican Senator Richard Shelby and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Joining us now to talk about the military and diplomatic implications of this latest impasse in U.S.-China relations are two members of the Senate: in Washington, Virginia Republican John Warner. He's the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a former secretary of the Navy. And joining us from Seattle, Washington, is Michigan Senator Carl Levin. He's the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senators, welcome back to LATE EDITION.

And, Senator Warner, I want to begin with you. It looks, based on the tea leaves we're hearing, the comments we're hearing from officials in Beijing, as well as in the United States, that there seems to be a snag, an impasse in what looked like a situation where the resolution seemed fairly close.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: Well, Wolf, those of us that are watching this every day, it does ebb and flow a bit. But let's sort of push back and, with a sense of calmness and a sense of confidence, look at this situation.

I think the president and his national security team have handled this thing very well, as manifested by strong bipartisan support from those that I'm privileged to serve with in the Congress. You also have, if I may say as a former sailor, a chapter of heroism with these aviators and the manner in which they have conducted themselves throughout this incident. Now, clearly, we should not make an apology, and I'll return to that. But I said a week ago today, when I first learned of this -- I was with the chief of naval operations coincidentally. I said, "In military matters, loss of life is regretted." And that's basically the tenor that's been established.

Now on this question of the apology, it's quite clear that apology equates to "we accept responsibility." We cannot accept that responsibility now that we do not have all the facts. Indeed, China has more facts than we. What about the debriefing of the surviving pilot? And they've obviously had the opportunity to talk to our crew.

But here's one thing that's certain, and I think the Chinese should bear this in mind, and I say this respectfully: Eventually, all the facts will be out. The world will be able to make its own judgment as to who was at fault. And all facts indicate now that it was not the United States, but, as an old lawyer, give him the benefit of doubt until the facts are adduced.

But if it does come out, as I anticipate, that it was pilot error, perhaps unintentional, I hope, on the part of Chinese pilot, then China would be embarrassed had they forced an apology at the time when the facts will not bear up any basis for the United States accepting responsibility.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, how is the Bush administration over this past week, how do you believe they've handled this standoff with China?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: I think they've handled it appropriately, firmly, fairly. They've expressed their regret over the loss of life apparently of the Chinese pilot, and they've refused to give them an apology. And I think that that is precisely the right tone -- to be regretful but not to accept responsibility for something where we have no basis to accept responsibility.

I must tell you, the determination here of the Chinese to try to extract an admission of responsibility in the form of an apology just reinforces their human rights reputation as people who are willing to extract confessions, who detain people improperly.

That is what they're doing now, and I don't think they're doing them any good, in terms of the world view of China. And they surely are stretching this relationship between ourselves even further by continuing that not just to detain our crew but to refuse access regularly and appropriately to our crew by our own people. They are playing games with that access.

Now we learn on CNN that it is just part of the crew that we have been given access to on this last visit. They delay these visits by many, many hours. And then they at 10:00, or 11:00 at night finally will permit access to part of the crew.

China is not doing itself any favors in terms of world view of China, and their bad reputation on human rights in the way they are detaining this crew. And they have no right to detain this crew. And in a manner in which they are trying to extract an admission, when, in fact, there is no basis that we know of for that admission being made.

BLITZER: Senator Warner...

WARNER: If I could pick up...

BLITZER: I want to bring you back in, Senator Warner. I know you have spoken to many people at the Pentagon including a lot of people in the Navy, as have I. And you probably heard the same thing that I have heard, especially from those within the U.S. Navy, who say, if anyone should apologize, they say the Chinese should apologize to the United States for the reckless behavior, they say, of that Chinese fighter pilot who got simply too close to that U.S. surveillance aircraft.

WARNER: You know, I think we should move on. Both Carl and I very clearly have said the administration has been correct in the manner they've dealt with apology issue to date. I point out, eventually, it will be known the facts, and there will be no basis, not now nor in future, for an apology. And it is China's interest.

We should be concerned with the long term relationships between China and the United States. China is a closed society. And we can imagine that they are having some difficulty within their structure now, trying to resolve this issue and how they should handle it. We are an open society. Indeed some tough criticism has been directed at our president by certain sections of the media today, but we accept that. That's the price of a democracy.

So being a closed society, the world is focusing more closely on how China is handling it. And as my good friend, Carl Levin, pointed out, they shouldn't be detaining these people, nor these sort of abrupt meetings between our embassy officials and these people.

China has much to gain -- as was pointed out by Condoleezza Rice -- much to gain by moving swiftly internally to resolve the procedures hopefully along the lines of the package that both the secretary of state and Condoleezza and others, and indeed the vice president, have expressed earlier today. Get on with it, and let's move on to establishing a forum, by which impartial observers can sit down and assess the facts and determine the responsibility.

But in the long term, China -- I can't emphasize this too strongly -- is a competitor in trade, in leadership in this region and in so many ways. And we will have other problems with China, just as sure as I'm sitting here in the years to come.

We can assume that the world will say, "The next problem will be handled like this one?" unless China moves out expeditiously and resolves this problem now. So let's get on with it. And it is to interests of both nations and indeed the security of this vital region in the world.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, is there a time frame here, the pressure to resolve it? How much longer can it go on, do you think, before there really is very serious damage in the U.S.-China relationship? LEVIN: Well, I think there has been damage already. And it will become more serious each day that goes by without the release of our crew. That is the key item.

And I think this damage is real. Already, I know our colleagues feel strongly, the American people feel strongly. And so I think that the damage in terms of trade, in terms of the ability of China to have a much more normal relationship with the world, and even in terms of the Olympics, which they have their hearts on achieving.

But in so many ways, I think that each day that goes by, the damage is getting greater, and that it is not to China's interest to continue this standoff. They can't gain.

Sooner or later our crew is going to be released. I don't have any doubt about that. The only question is when, and whether or not China finally realizes that they are not going to be able to extract an admission of guilt when there is no evidence of that at this point.

And so, I would say, that the clock is already running, and that the time frame is -- I can't put an endpoint on it. But I'm very confident that sooner or later our crew will be released because the opinion of the world will force China to do that. And China will realize one day, I'm sure, that it is digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole by the way they are treating our crew and the way they are also using their media, for such a propaganda purpose. They are printing some of the really most extreme kind of statements in their media, making it much more difficult, I think, for themselves in the long term.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, Senator Warner, stand by.

We have to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about. When we return, your phone calls as well for Senators John Warner and Carl Levin. LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

We'll get to our discussion on the U.S.-China standoff with the two senators, John Warner and Carl Levin, in just a moment. But we are monitoring a breaking news story in Amsterdam in the Netherlands where the terminal at the Schiphol International Airport was evacuated earlier today when fire broke out in the shopping mall area. That's according to an airport spokesman speaking to CNN.

The spokesman says, "There's a lot of smoke. We don't know what really happened."

We do know that Dutch television is reporting that thousands of people were evacuated from the airport after what Dutch television is describing as an explosion and large fire in the passenger terminal. No immediate word on any casualties. We do know from Dutch television that ambulances have been screaming into the airport in Amsterdam, which of course, to our international viewers, viewers who travel around the world know, is one of the busiest airports in the world.

Once again, the terminal at Schiphol International Airport was evacuated Sunday in Amsterdam after fire broke out in a shopping mall area. We will continue to monitor this story, have additional details as they become available.

Let's get back now on our discussion on the U.S.-China standoff with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, and the ranking Democrat, Michigan Senator Carl Levin.

I want to get back to you, Senator Warner, on this whole issue of the Americans who are now still on Hainan Island. Many of your colleagues are now referring to them as "hostages," a strong word. Do you believe they're hostages?

WARNER: I clearly say that they're being detained. A hostage has a special connotation, largely when two nations are in a state of animosity or indeed conflict. I think we are certainly not at that stage with China nor do I anticipate we will be.

So I'd select not to use that word, but I am gravely concerned about every minute that goes by, and they are still retained there. They should be allowed to return to their families and go back home. They're brave people, and all the Navy salutes them well done.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, are they hostages?

LEVIN: No, I think they're pawns being used by the Chinese to try to gain some goals that they're not going to achieve. But nonetheless, they're being used as pawns, they're being used improperly, inappropriately.

They're being detained, and I wouldn't use the term "hostage" yet, but I think the Chinese have to realize that that term if it's applied at all, will even do more severe damage than has already been done.

But they're being used as pawns, and I think that the Chinese are stretching this relationship with us in a way which is not going really help them long term or short term.

BLITZER: Senator Warner, what options does President Bush have right now to ratchet up the pressure assuming the standoff continues?

WARNER: I think he's handled it very well together with his security team.

Like Carl Levin, I'm gravely concerned that every minute that goes by does not help our long-term relationship with China or, indeed, China's with the world. Suppose you're a businessman, it doesn't have to be United States businessman, you're watching this unfold against a background of China having detained some other individuals here, one from my state of Virginia here recently.

They're going to say to themselves, wait a minute, do we really want to go in and sign a contract with this country that conducts themselves in this manner? They're a closed society, we don't have the benefit of knowing everything that they do? China is anxious to -- trade agreements, the Olympics coming up, there are a lot of very significant things which if China would be, I think, ready to step up and solve this thing now, will more likely occur.

In the Congress, for example, we have this very important assessment to be made, both by the president and the Congress, as to the composition of an arms package which annually we review. In accordance with law, we are legally obligated to help Taiwan if they so desire with their defenses. This incident, I had hoped could be unrelated. But every day that goes by in my judgment, it will have more of a bearing on the judgments eventually to be given by the Congress on this important arms package.

I myself have felt -- for example, there are two classes of ships discussed in this package. There's the Kidd class, which are ships that have been built, they are currently in the reserve status. I think they should be supplied to Taiwan. They'd be well advised to have this augmentation of their United States Navy.

As regard to the Aegis Burke, more advanced ship, which would take four or five years to deliver, seems to me I wouldn't finalize it in this package, but make it clear, the options to move very swiftly, to that incremental addition to this package or a future one would be there, unless China begins to ratchet down its rapid buildup defenses, and particularly those directed towards Taiwan.

BLITZER: What about that, Senator Levin, is there a connection in your mind between what's happening now between the United States and China and what the Bush administration and the Congress should be doing about future arms sales to Taiwan?

LEVIN: Logically, no, but, as time goes on, I think that, as a practical matter, there will be a connection. It's kind of hard to separate events perfectly logically when the Chinese are dealing with our crew as badly as they are, in terms of denying us open access to that crew and keeping them to begin with.

So, no, we should try to see if we can't make a judgment on that arms sales probably along the lines that John Warner just talked about, or close to that. But it's going to be very difficult in the environment that they are creating in China for us to be making a decision based on rational long-term security needs in the area.

BLITZER: As you know, Senator Warner, last year the Congress and the president, at that time President Clinton, approved what's called "permanent normal trade relations" with China, so China would not have to annually go through getting MFN, most-favored nation, trade status.

There is an opening though, now, because China has not yet been admitted into the World Trade Organization. Do you think that there should be some second thoughts about PNTR, permanent normal trade relations, between United States and China?

WARNER: I supported that action last year and had fully intended to do likewise in the future, should it come up before the Congress in a certain manner. But I'd have to say that I, along with many others, now are obligated to take a very close look at this entire pattern of action of China with regard to this accident, with these planes.

So, yes, it will have an impact on that decision, in the not distant future in the Congress.

BLITZER: And very, very briefly, Senator Levin, do you agree with Senator Warner on PNTR with China?

LEVIN: Human rights was a big part of that debate, and their treatment of their own people, their violations of the human rights, internationally recognized, of their own people, was a big issue. And the way they are treating our crew in denying access openly, and also in trying to extract an acknowledgement when the facts don't justify it, as far as we can tell, is just symbolic of their violations of human rights and their bad human rights policies, which was such a major issue in that debate.

BLITZER: OK, Senators, stand by.

We have to take another quick break. When we return, we'll also talk about President Bush's budget. His outline gets through the Senate but not without some setbacks, talk with Senators Warner and Levin about the budget battle and more on China when LATE EDITION continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm really pleased to report that the United States Senate just moments ago passed a budget that funds our nation's priorities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush on Friday claiming victory after the Senate approved his budget outline. That budget included a $1.25 trillion tax cut over 10 years. That is less than the $1.6 trillion that the president wanted.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION. We are talking with Virginia Republican Senator John Warner and Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin.

The president declared victory, Senator Warner, but he didn't get the $1.6 trillion tax cut that he originally wanted.

WARNER: That's all right. There is a long road ahead of us. There will be a conference with the House, and in my judgment, that figure will be increased somewhat.

But, clearly, the centerpiece of President Bush's whole program has been to get a tax cut, and that he did. What we did is establish the goal post as to the dollars. And that will be adjusted somewhat as we go to conference, and I think it will be a bigger playing field with the dollars.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, on that point that Senator Warner makes, a lot of Republicans make -- yes, the president didn't get his complete $1.6 trillion tax cut, but he got $1.25. The House, remember, voted for the $1.6, though, in conference. Presumably, it'll get closer to that $1.6, which is still a lot more than the Democrats, including yourself, originally wanted -- maybe $500 billion originally or $800 billion. So it's getting closer to what the president wanted.

LEVIN: Well, that is one of the two major reasons that most Democrats still voted against that budget because, number one, the tax cut was still too large, going to too few people, where half that tax cut goes to the wealthiest 5 percent.

And also, most Democrats voted against the budget because it takes $50 billion of the Medicare surplus and uses that to help fund that tax cut. Now that is not had a lot of focus yet, but it will. And when that conference meets, they are going to have to deal with that issue, because it is wrong to use the Medicare surplus to fund that tax cut that the president did get.

On the other hand, I got to tell you, Wolf, the president said the right amount was $1.6 trillion. He didn't get it in the Senate because all the Democrats but one said it was too big a tax cut, going mostly to upper-income people, but also because a few Republicans, despite huge pressure on them to go along with the president, said this was not a fiscally responsible thing to do, to base a large tax cut on very speculative 10-year projections which may not come true.

So he put the best face on it that he could, the president, but it was not a victory for the president. It was something of a stand- off. But he lost a significant chunk of his program.

BLITZER: Senator Warner, we don't have a lot of time, but I want to get your response -- you're the chairman of the Armed Services Committee -- to what one of your members, Democrat Joe Lieberman, wrote in The New York Times yesterday, referring to the tax cut proposal the president has. Lieberman insisting this is going to hurt the men and women in the U.S. military.

He wrote this: "The budget doesn't add up today or leave enough money for our military needs tomorrow. In the administration's new budgetary calculation, it seems joint filers trump joint chiefs."

Is Lieberman correct, that this budget the president has put forward is going to hurt U.S. military personnel?

WARNER: I say to my good friend, who is a member of the committee of which I'm privileged to chair with Carl Levin: You are wrong, friend.

We will, as a nation, always put our national security interests, our need to provide for the men and women of the armed services, and to provide not only for their welfare but their equipment, we will always put that in top priority. On the floor, I had the amendment which added $8.5 billion -- and that was successful in the budget process -- to the coming fiscal year. Now that's a clear manifestation that the Congress supported my initiative -- indeed my good friend, Senator Levin, voted with me on that -- to give the adequate funds in the coming fiscal year.

So we're going to always take care of our men and women and equip them. We've got to modernize them and include things in there that are essential for their health. That is being done.

LEVIN: That was not quite as good an amendment as Senator Mary Landrieu's amendment however, which, because of Republican opposition, was defeated, which had a larger amount over a 10-year period to make sure that the pay is right, that the health care is right, and so forth. A much better amendment which was defeated because of the size of that tax cut, did not allow room for what we should be doing for our military.

BLITZER: Senator Levin and Senator Warner, unfortunately we are all out of time. I want to thank both of you for joining us.

LEVIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: On that note, thanks once again for joining us on Late Edition.

WARNER: Thank you.

BLITZER: We have to quick a break.

For our international viewers, World News is next. For our North American audience, stay with us for the second hour of LATE EDITION.

We'll get some perspective on what the standoff means between the United States and China. We'll have three guests, plus our Late Edition roundtable and Bruce Morton's last word. It's all ahead in the second hour of LATE EDITION.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome to the second hour of LATE EDITION, the last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret one of their airplanes is lost. And our prayers go out to the pilot.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush extends his regrets to China but stops short of a formal apology.

We'll talk about the delicate state of U.S.-China relations, with former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, former National Security Council China adviser Ken Lieberthal and retired Vice Admiral J.D. Williams.

Plus our LATE EDITION roundtable: Steve Roberts, Susan Page and David Brooks.

And Bruce Morton has the last word on the United States through Chinese eyes, from ally to evil empire.

Welcome back. We'll get to our guests in just a moment, but first, for the latest on the standoff between China and United States, let's go live to CNN's Andrea Koppel.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: We now get three different perspectives on the diplomatic and military implications of the U.S.-China standoff: in Washington, Richard Perle, he served as assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration; retired vice admiral J.D. Williams, a former deputy chief of naval operations; and joining us from our Detroit bureau, University of Michigan professor Ken Lieberthal. He served as the national security council's top Asia adviser during the Clinton administration.

Gentlemen, welcome to LATE EDITION.

Richard Perle, I want to begin with you. If you this had been a Gore administration, and the Gore administration would have been behaving this past week the way the Bush administration has behaved -- and you are a supporter of the Bush administration, an adviser during the campaign -- what would you have been saying?

RICHARD PERLE, FORMER ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY FOR INTERNATIONAL SECURITY POLICY: Well, I'm sorry to say that I think, had it been a Gore administration, and had it exhibited continuity with the Clinton administration, we would have apologized by now because apologies were hallmark of that administration. And it may be that the Chinese were led to expect that we are an apologizing nation, after eight years of it.

BLITZER: So you don't have any problems with the way the Bush administration has been dealing with -- very firm early on, seemingly more conciliatory, and now we just heard from Andrea Koppel, our State Department correspondent, Secretary of State Colin Powell using the word "he's sorry" about the loss of life of that Chinese jet fighter? That doesn't concern you, that kind of mixed message that seems to be sent?

PERLE: No. I think the administration is doing this just about right. They have their eye on the objective, clearly, which is to obtain the release of the crew and the return of our aircraft. We have a large and complicated relationship with China. We have lots of issues with the Chinese, some of which are difficult to resolve.

And if we are going to use the great strength and leverage we have in relation to China, I would like to see us use it in a way that benefits our overall relationship with them and not settle this issue a day sooner, because it is going to get settled satisfactory in any case.

BLITZER: Professor Lieberthal, you did serve on the national security council during the Clinton administration. Would a Clinton administration by now have apologized as Richard Perle suggests?

KEN LIEBERTHAL, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL ASIA ADVISER: No, I don't think there's any possibility that we would have. Mr. Perle may have been referring to our apologizing over the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, but there there was no question but that the fault was ours. There was loss of life; there is tremendous damage to the embassy.

This is a totally different situation. An apology is not warranted. This occurred in international waters. It would probably in fact, as far as we can piece together at this point, almost certainly was the fault of the Chinese pilot.

But I do think that we have to pursue an approach that allows the Chinese to back off without a tremendous loss of face, because they will not accept anything else, and we have to stay clear of apology. So some expression of sorrow, of regret, taking note, acknowledging the Chinese position that it was our fault, but not agreeing with that position. Some kind of combination like that has to be worked out through quiet diplomacy to get this done.

There is no chance that the Clinton administration would have apologized in this kind of situation.

BLITZER: Admiral Williams, you served in the Navy for a long time, you know the mood, what the feelings are there. I've spoken to a lot of current Naval officers, high ranking Naval officers. They're very angry at the Chinese, they think the Chinese should apologize to the United States for what they claim is the reckless behavior of that Chinese jet fighter pilot.

VICE ADMIRAL J.D. WILLIAMS, U.S. NAVY: Well, let me say, I think absolutely, whether they apologize or not, the way China's handling this, it really is absurd.

The incident took place in international air space over international waters, and as I said the other day, it's kind of like the "big sky, little plane" theory. Two planes up in the sky almost have to want to collide to collide. It's a big space.

Two fighters from 50, 60 miles away or further, intercepted our flight, flew close formation to take pictures and quite frankly to harass our pilot.

A lot of people are making like, "Gee, did our plane turn or not?" It makes no difference. The Chinese pilots created a dangerous situation, and someone miscalculated -- apparently the pilot that's dead now -- miscalculated, and it was an accident. So it doesn't make any difference whether our plane quite frankly turned or not. It was the Chinese jet pilot's -- probably a hot dog, which you like in wartime, but it gets dangerous in peace time.

So, no, we shouldn't apologize, because we're doing what we should be doing.

BLITZER: Richard Perle, as you look at this situation, do you get the sense that the Chinese are about to back down and reach an agreement, resolve this matter, allow those 24 Americans to go home? Or do you think that they're digging in -- both sides digging in and apparently this is going to drag on for sometime?

PERLE: I have no doubt about the ultimate release of the crew, and I don't think it's going to be months or even weeks. Whether it happens on Monday or on Wednesday, seems to me a lot less important than it happens, and that we use the diplomatic process to secure their release.

After that, there will be plenty of time to assess exactly what happened. The idea of creating a joint commission to examine the circumstances of this accident, I think, is a very creative idea. It offers a way to settle the facts as to who was responsible for the incident. And we can then return to the broader agenda of deciding what kind of relationship we can have with the People's Republic of China. They're making it very difficult for us to think in terms of a long-term, constructive relationship.

BLITZER: Professor Lieberthal, you're an expert on China. You've studied China for many, many years. Why is it so important, apparently, for the Chinese leadership to have a formal apology from the United States?

LIEBERTHAL: The Chinese tend to cast foreign affairs in terms of good and evil, right and wrong, the moral high ground and moral culpability.

After President Bush came out with a rather strong statement on Monday, asking for immediate access to our crew members, Jiang Zemin came out to respond on behalf of the Chinese and personally escalated this and said it was really the U.S.'s fault.

By the way, for all we know, his own military may have told him that, he may have really believed it, we don't know.

Having said that, this then got caught up in the usual Chinese approach in such issues where one side has to be right and the other side has to be wrong, at least rhetorically. And the side that's wrong has to admit that it's wrong, and then you can cut a deal that, you know, takes account of everyone's real interests.

So I think they've kind of painted themselves into a corner here, and we're working with them to help get them out of that corner. I think, frankly, at this point, they also want to get out of the corner. So the issue is working quietly behind the scenes to find the kind of wording that will let everyone walk away from this and meeting their minimum domestic political needs in the process.

BLITZER: Admiral Williams, how much damage has there been to the U.S. national security apparatus as a result of that EP-3 surveillance plane now on the ground on Hainan Island and all that classified equipment and information that wasn't destroyed, let's say, by the crew, available to the Chinese?

WILLIAMS: Well, I'm quite confident they're well-trained. I think the most sensitive information was destroyed. We won't know that, quite frankly, until we have free access to the pilots to determine just how much was destroyed and what was left. But certainly, it's a windfall for the Chinese intelligence and military.

BLITZER: Richard Perle, you've studied national security matters for many, many years, deeply involved in the Senate as an aide long before you went to the Pentagon. Should the United States continue these kinds of surveillance, or reconnaissance, flights off the coast of China?

PERLE: Oh, absolutely. It's in international air space over international waters. We collect intelligence around the world that intelligence is vital, and there's no basis for stopping that practice.

BLITZER: Some say the information can be obtained a lot more safely by satellites.

PERLE: If it can be obtained more safely, more effectively by satellites, then we should do it that way, but I believe that that aircraft was on a mission that couldn't be accomplished by satellites.

What we may want to think about, in light of the windfall to which the admiral refers, is a much tougher policy toward the technology that we export to China. We have been pretty open-handed now in facilitating the development of Chinese technology even for military purposes. And that is a policy that I expect will merit re- examination when this incident is over and our crew is back safe.

BLITZER: All right, gentlemen, we have to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about.

When we return, your phone calls for Richard Perle, Admiral J.D. Williams and Ken Lieberthal. LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

We want to update you on a breaking story out of the Netherlands we told you about a little while ago. We now know that there was a fire. It apparently broke out at a fast food restaurant in Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport in the main shopping plaza. The fire and what has been described as an explosion resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people from one of the passenger terminals.

There's no word on any injuries. The Dutch airport of course is one of the busiest in Europe. It is now closed to flights. We'll have more information on that as it becomes available.

We're continuing our conversation now with the former Reagan assistant secretary of defense, Richard Perle, the retired Vice Admiral J.D. Williams, and the former Clinton National Security Council Asia adviser, Professor Ken Lieberthal.

Professor Lieberthal, on this whole relationship between the United States and China, as you know, the president of China -- you were just there -- Jiang Zemin, is getting ready to retire, we're told, next year.

How does this play out, the fact that there may be a change in leadership coming up, in this particular incident?

LIEBERTHAL: The Chinese have been very concerned to establish a good relationship with the new administration, demonstrate that they can continue to handle the U.S. account very well. And it's part of Jiang's prestige that he's able to manage well the relationship with the most powerful country in the world.

Having said that, they've been very worried, especially on the security side, by the various initiatives that this administration has said it will pursue -- increasing Japan's security role in region, slow walking relations with North Korea, improving diplomatic status of Taiwan, selling more advanced weapons to Taiwan, downgrading the relationship with China, deploying missile defenses, both theater and national.

All of these things, the Chinese feel, indicate that this administration is not taking them seriously. I think that increases the sensitivity politically in China of how they handle this particular incident. They have to demonstrate that the U.S. does take them seriously.

So I think it does play out, and Jiang Zemin is very worried that, if he comes off looking too weak here, it's going to inhibit his ability to structure the succession that will take place in the next two years in China.

BLITZER: How important, Admiral Williams, is the whole issue of U.S. armed sales to Taiwan in dealing with this relationship between the United States and China?

WILLIAMS: Well, let me comment on something Ken said, is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ballistic missile defense, a strong military presence in the Far East.

Unfortunately the incident illuminates in an alarmingly way the Chinese might handle the next miscalculation that could be a lot more serious than the plane. That's, to me, where China is losing with a long-term relationship, handling this in the way that both the U.S. and certainly the American people and probably other countries around the world are looking at this, you don't have a lot of confidence they would handle an even more serious situation.

So, it's another reason why this country needs a ballistic missile defense, why we need a strong military presence in the area. It's just for stability, and countries around the world, by the way, trust the U.S. to be the let's say watchdog much more than they would trust anybody else in the world. So it's disappointing to see how China is handling this situation. BLITZER: Let's take a caller from Pennsylvania for our panel.

Go ahead, please, with your question. Pennsylvania, go ahead with your question.

CALLER: Hello?

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead with your question.

CALLER: Yes, my question is: How come Bush is not asking for apology from China for holding our service men and women and breaking international law? I guess my question's for...

BLITZER: What about that, Richard Perle?

PERLE: I'm sorry, I didn't hear the question. If could you repeat it, Wolf?

BLITZER: The question is: Why isn't President Bush asking China for an apology for holding the U.S. military personnel on Hainan Island?

PERLE: I think the president doesn't want to further inflame the situation. It's difficult, it's tense enough already. And that would not lead to an earlier release of our crew.

Someone ought quietly to say to the Chinese leadership, remind them of the first law of holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging.

(LAUGHTER)

PERLE: And the president certainly isn't going to dig us any deeper into this.

BLITZER: But on that point, Richard Perle, what do you say to those who argue, including the editors of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine in Washington which writes this week about a "humiliation," the U.S. humiliation, the way the Chinese have treated the United States? What do you argue that the Chinese, the longer they hold out, the more they're likely to get concessions from the United States. They've already got expression of regret. Now the secretary of state is saying he's sorry.

What do you argue that -- you know, why not try to get more, squeeze some more nuggets out of the Bush administration?

PERLE: Well, I don't believe that the precise words with which we characterize the loss of a Chinese pilot's life, however irresponsibly he may have been conducting his mission, does any real harm to the United States or constitutes a humiliation.

What really matters here is, first, the return of our crew and the aircraft and, secondly, the quality of the management of the U.S.- Chinese relationship, which is going to be, I think, far more attentive to our security concerns, less romantic than we've seen for the last several years.

This administration doesn't consider the Chinese to be a partner. We consider them to be a difficult country with which it's going to be difficult to manage the relationship. And this new realism may have caused the Chinese some discomfort. But it is a new and very different policy from what we've seen for the last several years.

BLITZER: All right, we have to take another quick break. We have a lot more to talk about.

We'll continue our discussion and take more of your phone calls about the U.S.-China standoff when we come back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're talking about the U.S.-China standoff with former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, retired Vice Admiral J.D. Williams, and former Clinton National Security Council Asia adviser Ken Lieberthal.

We have another caller from Naples, Florida. Please go ahead with your question. Naples, Florida go ahead. Can you hear me Naples, Florida? Last chance for your question.

Nevermind, I guess he can't hear me.

All right, Professor Lieberthal, there was an interesting release of some previously classified memos that preceded President Nixon's opening to China in 1972. One of the pieces of advice we got last week when the national archives released these documents, offered this advice to then President Nixon.

It said this: "Any thing they" -- referring to the Chinese -- "do has to look as if the initiative comes from them and that they are acting spontaneously out of sheer generosity. Your approach should be very low-key."

Is that still good advice to President Bush all these years later?

LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think not quite. We have come a long way with the Chinese.

But what is true is that the Chinese often count on the other side quietly to lay out a road map, a path to resolve a situation. And the road map has to allow room for Chinese to look as if they have been reasonably consistent, even as they are backing away from their earlier position.

It is very tricky and sometimes very frustrating when you deal with them, but you can effectively move forward as long as you understand that part of their negotiating style. I think that is what the Bush administration is now appreciating, and is trying to act on that basis.

BLITZER: Admiral Williams, there was an editorial the other day, Thursday, in the Sydney Morning Herald, an Australia newspaper. Let me read to you an excerpt from that editorial.

"There is no reason to think that they" -- referring to the Americans in China -- "and the crippled plane that brought them to China will not be released in due course. But in the game now being played out, Beijing has the better cards. Naturally, they are in no hurry to end the game without seeing what they can get out it."

A lot of people have suggested that they are testing this new Bush administration. Is that an accurate assessment, that the Chinese are testing President Bush to see what they can get out of him?

WILLIAMS: I think certainly to some extent on that. But at the same token, all the people that could be in the administration now between President Bush and Secretary Powell and Vice President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Secretary Rumsfeld, we could not have a better government to lead us out of this crisis.

So I think the American people step back be confident in whatever they do. They are not going to foul this up. China has already fouled it up.

And certainly I would agree that we need to let the Chinese get out, saving face. But certainly they have better cards. They have our people and our plane. I mean, you know a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. So, yes, they have the better cards, but we have a strong government who is willing to, quite frankly, to be strong in what we do. And I think that is just what they are doing.

BLITZER: This past week, Richard Perle, we have seen a lot of the president making statements. The vice president was on some of the Sunday morning programs earlier today, the Secretary of State Colin Powell. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was on this program earlier today. We have seen virtually nothing of the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Is that good or bad that he has been, at least publicly, largely invisible?

PERLE: Well, I think that is certainly by his choice. He is very much involved in the decision-making. He has got plenty to do to rebuild our defenses, to complete a defense review that will lead to much stronger capabilities in the future. He doesn't need to add to the several people who already are speaking for the administration.

Wolf, let me just offer you a theory as to what's happened here. You had an incident. You have an accident almost certainly caused by Chinese pilot. The first reports going back to Beijing were almost certainly not from the base commander saying our pilot just caused an accident.

So it is almost certainly the case that the Chinese backed into the further elaboration of this accident on the basis of bad and possibly deliberately misleading information. And now the thing has gotten a little bit out of hand. We shouldn't take it further out of hand. It is going to get resolved. What matters is what happens in the long term. So if Don Rumsfeld is rebuilding our defenses, that's the long term. That's what he ought to be doing.

BLITZER: Unfortunately, we've only a few minutes left. We only have a few seconds, really, left.

Professor Lieberthal, I want to you wrap up the entire situation. Give us your assessment, right now, how much longer you believe this standoff can continue.

LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think it is likely to get wrapped up in the next few days, but it ain't over til it's over. There is still some issues of wording and quiet diplomacy to take care of, and so it could still trip up.

I think one of the big lessons of this entire thing is that both sides have to take account of the domestic politics and the real political needs of other side if they are going to get something done. That is a lesson that's generally true, and we are seeing it play out in this particular case.

BLITZER: Professor Ken Lieberthal, Richard Perle, Admiral J.D. Williams, thanks to all of you for joining us for your insight. We really appreciate it.

And just ahead, how is President Bush handling his first real international test? We will go around the table on that with that and more with Roberts, Page and Brooks when LATE EDITION returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Time now for our LATE EDITION roundtable. Holding down the fort in Washington: Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; Steve Roberts, contributing editor for U.S. News and World Report, and David Brooks, senior editor for the Weekly Standard.

And Steve, I want to begin with you. Give us your sense, how is President Bush handling this first real international test he faced?

STEVE ROBERTS, CNN COMMENTATOR: I think he's handling it very well, Wolf. I think he's showing calmness, he's showing firmness. You know, you don't have to have to show strength by being bellicose or by being angry. I think you show strength by being calm.

Big question about Bush, could he handle an international consequence? I don't think a week ago he knew where Hainan Island was, but I do think that he's acted pretty well. And I think the conservative critics who say that this is an national humiliation are way off base. I think he's handling it just about right. Because, look, in the end the United States has a lot of with China. It's in our interests we resolve peacefully as well as in China's interests. I think he's doing very well.

BLITZER: David, are you one of those conservative critics like your colleagues at the Weekly Standard who think this is a humiliation for the United States?

DAVID BROOKS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Steve's talking about my magazine there. Listen, we Jews read the Sader last night, which is the story of the Jews coming out of Egypt. We didn't apologize to the pharaoh for holding us in bondage.

This is the precedent-setting event in the Chinese-U.S. relationship, and this feeds into a long debate which me and my colleagues have been fighting about the true nature of the Chinese regime. Some people feel it's a regime that's just like us, only they look a little communistic.

We happen to think it's a communist dictatorship, and their behavior in this, holding our pilots hostage, is absolutely in keeping with the way they've always behaved, persecuting religious minorities, persecuting anybody who wants freedom, whipping up anti-American hysteria.

So this is how we have to deal with them. Do we deal with them by appeasing them, or do we deal with them by showing strength? Bush is not doing terribly, but he's not showing the strength that I'd like to see.

BLITZER: Are you surprised, Susan, by the criticism that the president and Secretary Powell and the administration is facing, not from the Democrats -- we heard Senator Levin earlier on this program praising what the president is doing, the way they've conducted this week-long negotiation -- but from Republicans and from conservatives, members of his own party?

SUSAN PAGE, CNN COMMENTATOR: You know, I don't think it's surprising, Wolf, because of course the Republican Party is deeply divided about what stance we should take toward China generally, and that's reflected in the attitude about what we should do on this standoff in particular.

And it's hard to overestimate how important it is how this particular confrontation comes out. You know, you remember many times the early foreign policy crises the president faces has long repercussions. You think about JFK in 1961, for instance, had a difficult summit with Kruschev, embolded the Soviet Union in the missile crisis and the year to follow. And so this has great importance, not only for the 24 lives of the Americans involved.

ROBERTS: Look, Wolf, I think it's clear that China makes it very hard to be their friend. They are, I think, over the line here in terms of not releasing our air crew and demanding this apology which does not appear to be justified.

On the other hand, I think where David and the conservatives at the Weekly Standard make a mistakes is two ways. First of all, even if you accept their description of China, what is the best way in the future of changing that regime? And I think it's much more through engagement rather than confrontation.

And secondly, what is in America's national interest? Leaving aside anything else, America's national interest is better served by engagement with China, by bringing them along into a situation where they observe international norms. And if you confront them, I think you make that less likely rather than more likely, and therefore it doesn't serve our own national interests.

BLITZER: On that analogy that you made, David, to the Passover Sader, the exodus, is this a situation where you would simply suggest that the president of the United States declare to the Chinese, "Let my people go," and if they don't, they offer the equivalent of 10 plagues on the Chinese?

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: Yes, 40 billion frogs down on Beijing.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: I think, you know, we have show some sort of strength. You know, there's all this easy talk about face-saving culture of China, but this is power politics. You know the head of the Chinese army declared we're heading toward a war with the U.S. And this is sort of an old-fashioned communist regime, which we have to deal with.

You know, Steve talked about, how do we deal with this sort of thing? We have a long history of dealing with regimes that are inimical to our version of human rights, our idea of how to treat people decently, with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Francisco Franco, the regime in South Africa.

There's no easy answer to this, but it seems to me the idea of confronting power with power has been historically the most reliable one. And I have to say, on this show, when we spoke with Senators Levin and Senators Warner, saying they're going to have a much tougher line, when we talk about trade with China, when we talk about the Olympics with China, I think there is some evidence that we're learning about how the Chinese really are, at least that regime really is.

BLITZER: Susan, is there any evidence that the president is discussing these issues with his father, who after all, not only a former president, but was the first senior U.S. representative in China after the opening that Richard Nixon achieved?

PAGE: I think all the indications are that he is conferring with his father, who after all is a seasoned China hand. I talked to a senior White House official who said it's silly to think he's not talking to his dad.

And when Ari Fleischer was asked this week, the White House press secretary, about this question, he said that the president had asked him not to answer that question.

There's another way you can answer that question, is by what President Bush is doing. What President Bush is doing, I think, is very much along the lines of how the elder President Bush behaved toward China, which was to take the time, don't back them into a corner, respect the fact that they operate in different ways than we do. This is something that didn't hold the elder President Bush in good stead with conservative critics, and his son is hearing some of that same criticism now.

BLITZER: Steve, we are going to take a break in a second, but how much damage, if there has been damage, in the long-term U.S.-China relationship has already occurred?

ROBERTS: I think there has been some damage.

You heard from the senators saying we're going to be a little tougher on the issue of trade. But in the long run, self-interest is what matters in politics, it is in America's self-interest to continue to have strong trade relations with China, even though the trade imbalance is very great in China's favor. It's in America's interest to have China live by international trading rules. So I think, if people look at what our national interest is, the damage will not be all that great in the long run.

BLITZER: All right, let's take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about.

Just ahead, the 50-50 Senate forces Vice President Dick Cheney to cast his vote as tie-breaker on the budget battle. Looks like Cheney's going to be a very busy man in the coming weeks and months. The roundtable weighs in when LATE EDITION returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

We want to give you one more update on the developing story out of the Netherlands. Thousands of travelers were evacuated from Amsterdam's airport when a boiler in a Burger King exploded and sent smoke shooting into the airport shopping mall. The resulting fire was quickly brought under control and CNN has now learned no one has been hurt.

Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport is one of Europe's busiest. Air traffic had to be halted temporarily. So that's the latest. No one hurt at that fire and explosion resulting from a boiler at a Burger King, at Schiphol International Airport.

Welcome back to our roundtable. Let's continue.

Steve Roberts, on the whole issue of the budget, the $1.6 trillion tax cut the president wanted, the Senate coming through with $1.25 billion, a lot more than most Democrats wanted, but certainly not the complete package the president wanted. The president's declaring victory right now. Is this a victory for him?

ROBERTS: Yes, it is, but he was a little late in declaring victory. I mean, they tried really hard to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory in this case.

By any historical measure, this is a victory for George Bush, $1.2 trillion tax cut. Democrats were saying during the campaign they wouldn't vote for anything like this.

It is a victory on the substance, but it's not a victory politically because he fought so hard for his specific benchmark of $1.6 that the stories after the vote said "Bush suffers defeat," which was a self-inflicted wound, in my view, by the administration, because they didn't identify with this compromise quickly enough. Now they're running to catch up and say, yes, yes, this is what we wanted all along or it's a victory for us. They should have done it earlier.

BLITZER: A big win for the Democrats or a big win for the Republicans, David?

BROOKS: It was a small win for the Republicans. Look, if Gore had been elected, we wouldn't have this tax cut, so Bush can claim a policy victory.

The long-range problem for Bush, which he didn't solve with this, is that the Democrats were able to peel away the New England moderate Republicans. The Bush administration was hoping to peel away the Southern Democrats, but the coalition that formed the majority coalition was a centrist coalition centered around John Breaux.

And the Bush administration in the future has to do a much better job of paying attention to Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, Jim Jeffords of Vermont and some of those other New England Republicans if he wants to build a majority coalition. I wish they had paid as much attention to appeasing Lincoln Chaffee as they did to the people in Beijing, but that's a future issue.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Susan, I think you were one of those who spoke about that moderate coalition emerging, Democrats and Republicans, the so- called Breaux Snowe -- John Breaux, the moderate Democrat from Louisiana, Olympia Snowe, the moderate Republican from Maine. Is that where the power's going to be in this new Senate?

PAGE: No question about it. I mean, there are a series of things that happened this week. You know, there was this vote on tax cuts, which I think was, you know, substantively all right for the administration, although, in a way, a setback for the strategy they had used for approaching trying to put together a coalition.

You know, they also had a victory of sorts in reaching an agreement on a bipartisan education bill in the Senate, which has gotten somewhat overlooked. They don't have vouchers in this bill. But they do have a bill that is likely to be passed.

And they took very different approaches. They took a rather conciliatory, did a lot of negotiating behind the scenes on education. They tried a much more confrontational approach on taxes, where the president kept going to the states of the key senators. And I think that the result has been that he's made them mad. These are the same senators he's going to have to go back to again and again, and I think the White House may be reassessing the approach they took on this tax bill. ROBERTS: And I think, Wolf, Trent Lott, the Republican leader in the Senate, also has to be reassessing. Because, as David points out, while I don't think the centrist coalition is going to govern on every issue because the history of this is not good -- by and large, centrists often get ripped apart by polarization. But with a 50-50 Senate, when you have the core of moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, if they can work together, they're going to be a powerful force.

Remember, most Democrats didn't vote for this bill. It was only about 14 centrist Democrats. So it's not just the Chaffees and the Jeffords who are critical, but it's also these moderate Democrats who defied their own leadership to vote for a much bigger tax bill than the Democratic leadership wanted.

So there is a pattern that could develop here. I'm still skeptical, but if these centrists in both parties hang together, they could be an important force.

BLITZER: David Brooks, the Miami Herald and USA Today did their own recount of the Florida undervote, the hanging chads, the pregnant chads and all of that. And they discovered, lo and behold, that, yes, President Bush did win Florida, it was not a mistake.

BLITZER: That, in turn, sparked the Los Angeles Times to write this editorial, among other things, saying: "There is some comfort in knowing that George W. Bush probably is not really an accidental president. But perhaps the central point is not the legitimacy of Bush's presidency -- that was never in doubt once Gore threw in the towel -- but a reminder that this presidency did not come with a mandate."

A lot of people are speaking about the mandate that President Bush has. Does he have that kind of mandate to undertake the sweeping tax cuts and other steps that he is advocating?

BROOKS: Yes. And he was right to say, you know, "If I act like a mandate, I have a mandate." And he is going to pass a sweeping tax cut. Bush can now finally unpack thanks to the Miami Herald.

There will be some Democrats who will go to their graves thinking that Alger Hiss is innocent and that Bush lost this election. But I think the bottom line is we are going to get this recount, there's going to be a Washington Post recount, there are going to be a couple of others, a Dow Jones recount.

It was settled on election day. That was the right way to do it. We had this extremely close election, there was no way to get within the margin of error. And holding the vote, counting the vote on election day as the court ruled was the right thing to do. So all this is after the fact.

BLITZER: We have to leave it right there. David Brooks, Susan Page, Steve Roberts, thanks once again for joining us.

Up next, Bruce Morton's "Last Word." (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Chinese are proud of China. They know it is ancient and great. But they know, too, that in recent times it has often been humbled by outside powers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Bruce takes a look at the delicate relationship between China and the United States when LATE EDITION returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

We had earlier, in describing Professor Ken Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, put on the screen that he was also a board member of Peking University in Beijing. That is incorrect. He is only a professor at the University of Michigan, also a former senior Asia adviser during the Clinton administration on the National Security Counsel.

Time now for Bruce Morton's "Last Word" on China.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MORTON (voice-over): I first went to Beijing as a reporter covering President Gerald Ford's 1976 visit. Lots of rhetoric about storing grain, keeping rifles ready against the wicked hegemonists, the guys who wanted to be in charge. Back then, they were the Soviets. The U.S. was seen as a possible ally in the fight.

Now we are the wicked hegemonists, and it is Russia, since there is no Soviet Union, which is seen as a possible ally. What hasn't changed is China's resentment of whoever the other big power in the neighborhood seems to be.

The Chinese are proud of China. They know it is ancient and great, but they know, too, that in recent times it has often been humbled by outside powers.

Hong Kong was British. Look at Shanghai's old downtown, where the money used to live. Western buildings, every one.

And more recently, well, they didn't get the 2000 Olympics. Western, American opposition.

And the U.S. bombed their embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo fighting. The Chinese government whipped up anger over that, and news reports are full of average angry Chinese saying, "We want payback," and similar tough talk.

It is hard to understand how a country with a multibillion-dollar CIA wouldn't know where an embassy was, of course, though it's even harder to understand why the U.S. would bomb it on purpose. Anyway, lots of Chinese anger, old and new. Their account of what happened is of course nonsense. A lumbering, propeller-driven spyplane hits a jet. The Washington Post's Jim Hoagland wrote, "That's like a moving van ramming a Harley on an open field," and he's about right.

But the Chinese don't care much if their anger makes sense. They are not bound by laws, as they demonstrated when they jailed an American-based scholar, Gao Zhan, for an illegal 52 days before charging her with spying; as they demonstrated in 1989, when they turned their army on their young people in Tiananmen Square.

So now the yellow ribbons are up again around America. A new president is facing his first foreign test.

The good news is that real hostility between the U.S. and China makes no sense, so the odds are the American crewmembers will come home. The bad news is that, sometimes, China seems not to care about making sense. The civilian leaders may fear seeming soft; the military leaders may yearn to be tough.

Americans, really, can only wait.

I'm Bruce Morton.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thanks, Bruce.

Now it's time for you to have the "Last Word."

Adele writes: "I'm amused by the propensity of the press to create a fight between the administration and the Chinese. I wish you would just leave the diplomats alone to work out the issue so that our people in uniform can return home. Are you trying to create another film on war?"

And Timmy mails us with this: "I think that the proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut is irresponsible. At this rate, our children and grandchildren will be paying off our national debt and struggling to support us baby-boomers when we need Social Security and Medicare. I just hope the Senate is strong enough to stand up to this full-court press by the White House."

Another viewer has this to say: "John McCain is a bully. Mr. Bush should realize that he is doing just what the Supreme Court wanted him to do, and that's rule the country."

As always, I invite your comments. You can e-mail me at lateedition@cnn.com. Don't forget to sign up for my free weekly e- mail at cnn.com/email.

When we return, we'll reveal what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: And now a look at what is on the cover of this week's major news magazines.

"Newsweek" examines "China's Dangerous Game: How the collision happened and the risks ahead," with a spy plane on the cover.

"TIME" magazine looks at "What Jesus Saw in Jerusalem: Then and now," with a picture of Jesus riding a donkey on the cover.

And on the cover of "U.S. News and World Report": "The Triumph of Christianity: How a Global Religion was Forged by Persecution and Conflict."

And that's your LATE EDITION for under Sunday, April 8:00. Please join us again next Sunday and every Sunday at noon Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

And if you missed any of today's program, you can tune in tonight at 7:00 p.m. Eastern for a one-hour replay of LATE EDITION. We will have the latest on the U.S.-China standoff tomorrow night on Wolf Blitzer Reports. That's a 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. I'm Wolf Blitzer in a very cloudy and hazy New York.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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