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CNN Wolf Blitzer Reports

United States and China Prepare to Fight Over Flights

Aired April 16, 2001 - 20:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Tonight: the United States and China get ready to fight over flights.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You can expect some forthright conversations about these flights and about what took place.


BLITZER: With the White House promising tough questions for Beijing, I'll discuss U.S.-Chinese relations with a man who's long had his own relationship with China: Pat Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network.

And a nightmare out of the past: authorities in West Africa are on alert for a ship believed to be carrying scores of children sold into slavery. We'll have a live report from West Africa.

Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting tonight from Washington.

In contrast to the tough talk on Friday, the Bush administration today sent out a more restrained message to China: It's now more important to look ahead than to continue exchanging bitter recriminations over the April 1st collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter. About 24 hours from now, the two sides will begin complex and difficult talks behind closed doors in Beijing, and that's our top story.


BLITZER (voice-over): After two weeks, the search for the missing Chinese pilot is now officially over. But on both sides of the Pacific, deep tensions remain.

FLEISCHER: Both nations have to make a determined choice about the future of our relations, and the first evidence of those determined choices will come in that meeting on Wednesday, and the president wants to hear what the Chinese have to say.

BLITZER: An eight-member U.S. delegation will ask tough questions. Issues on the agenda: what the U.S. calls the aggressive style of Chinese intercepts of its surveillance flights, and the return of the damaged EP-3E, still on the ground in China.

Recalling the crash, the U.S. pilot directly blamed the Chinese F-8 pilot and his superiors in Beijing.

LT. SHANE OSBORN, U.S. NAVY EP-3E PILOT: The fact that he felt it necessary to come up that aggressive three times, was definitely -- shows their intentions.

BLITZER: The White House is making clear its hope to avoid future encounters, but the Chinese insist the surveillance missions must end.

SHEN JIRU, ACADEMY OF SOCIAL SCIENCES (through translator): They have spy satellites. Why do they have to send plane so close? They're always doing something on China's doorstep.

BLITZER: The U.S. Counters: those flights will continue.

RICHARD BOUCHER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: It's a decision that we make where to fly, as long as we're in international airspace, when to fly, as long as we're in international airspace, and that we will continue to make those decisions on our own.

BLITZER: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is working on his recommendation to President Bush on how and when to resume the flights.


BLITZER: For more perspective on U.S. surveillance flights and China's response to them, I'm joined by Professor David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University here in Washington. He's an expert on the Chinese military.

Professor Shambaugh, thanks for joining us. The surveillance flights, the U.S. will say in the negotiation, they'll continue. The Chinese will say, we don't want them. What's going to happen?

PROFESSOR DAVID SHAMBAUGH, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Well, that's going to be the deadlock, and the Chinese well may say: "You stop the flights, or you won't get your plane back." That would be one choice I suspect the Washington is going to have to face. But of course, we're going to continue with them. The question is, how far offshore an whether in fact, we escort them with our own fighters.

BLITZER: Well, wouldn't than be seen by the Chinese as very a provocative step if a U.S. fighter jets started accompanying these flights?

SHAMBAUGH: Yes, it would be.

BLITZER: And what would be the People's Liberation Army, the Chinese military, how presumably, will they respond to that kind of stuff?

SHAMBAUGH: I doubt that they would challenge and intercept the flights, certainly not in as provocative a way as they apparently have been doing. If they were escorted, I think they would stay some ways away, but you know, it's really unpredictable. It's hard to say.

BLITZER: Are the Chinese -- is the Chinese leadership firmly convinced, as they say they are, that it was the U.S. fault for this collision?

SHAMBAUGH: Well, there is some evidence that this is the story that the Chinese military told the Chinese leadership, indeed that the local Guangdong Chinese military region sent up the line. And once the Chinese leadership received that story, they put it out to their own people and to the world. And once you do that, you can't back down. Now they obviously have diametrically opposed information from the American side.

BLITZER: And some speculation the Chinese may even ask the U.S. for reparations for the family?

SHAMBAUGH: I have heard suggestion of that. We'll see if they put that on the table tomorrow.

BLITZER: How in the big picture will all this affect U.S.- Chinese relations in the short term?

SHAMBAUGH: Well, in the short term, I think it's going to leave a lot of scar tissue, if you want to call it that, on the relationship. Both sides were deeply suspicious of each other going into these last two weeks. Now I think the suspicions have hardened a bit, and we have Taiwan arms sales decisions coming up shortly and a number of other really very sensitive and delicate questions in the relationship. So, right now, it is a very fragile and suspicious time.

BLITZER: Professor David Shambaugh, thanks for joining us.

SHAMBAUGH: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And he's pursued religious business and philanthropic interests in China for more than 20 years, and he has long called for closer U.S.-China relation along with improved trade ties. Earlier, I spoke with Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Christian Coalition.


BLITZER (on camera): Pat Robertson, thanks for joining us on our program. And I want right to the issue at hand, namely China. Are you satisfied with the way the standoff with China was resolved?

PAT ROBERTSON, RELIGIOUS BROADCASTER: Well, Wolf, I think the president handled himself very well on that. He was restrained. He didn't get us into some quagmire that we couldn't get out of.

But I'm really disappointed with the Chinese. If they want to get the Olympics in 2008 and they wanted to be treated as a member of the world community, they have to be more reasonable in the way they deal with people.

BLITZER: So, do you have a message to them right now, what you want to see them do as these negotiation begin on Wednesday in Beijing, how to avoid these kinds of collision down the road?

ROBERTSON: Well, I'm a friend of China, but the Chinese must realize that they can't lay claim to the entire South China Sea, that they don't have hegemony all the way to Japan, that they don't own the Spratley islands, et cetera. And that the United States has a perfect right to patrol off the coast there in international waters, and they can't keep us from doing it.

The big thing is they must understand the United States has no hostile intentions toward China whatsoever, but we do have to monitor North Korea and we do have to protect our vital interests.

BLITZER: You know, some of the conservatives write -- like Bill Kristol, the editor of "The Weekly Standard" here in Washington -- insist that the Bush administration, in effect, allowed the United States to be humiliated with the letter, the expression of regrets, the "very sorry" twice reference. You don't necessarily agree with Bill Kristol?

ROBERTSON: No, I really don't. I mean, listen, I've been over to China a number of times. I have some activity there and I have some spiritual activity in China, and, Wolf, there are 80 million Christians in China right now. There is a tremendous religious revival, and I have seen an emerging middle class come on in China that ultimately is going to win the day.

Granted, there are some old people that are still in power that look back to a previous age, but there's just too much that has been said in place by Deng Xiaoping that can't be reversed. And so, I think we need to encourage that, not stifle it.

BLITZER: How do you balance your historic support for closer relation with China, improved trade relations with China, with what many conservatives complain about, specifically the so-called forced abortions in China?

ROBERTSON: Well, you know, I don't agree with it. But at the same time, they've got 1.2 billion people, and they don't know what to do. If every family over there was allowed to have three or four children, the population would be completely unsustainable.

Right now, they run the risk of a tremendous unemployment. There are some antiquated factories that the government owns that have to be shut down that is going to put hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people out of work. And the leadership is like on a teeter-totter board, they can fall off if the population gets too restive.

So, I think that right now they're doing what they have to do. I don't agree with the forced abortion, but I don't think the United States needs to interfere with what they're doing internally in this regard.

BLITZER: But in effect, won't your critics on the right be saying that Pat Robertson is justifying abortions in China?

ROBERTSON: Well, I just think they need to get involved in what's happening.

But I'll tell you what the Chinese are doing, and it's going to be a demographic catastrophe. When they're having abortions, they're picking the girl babies for the slaughter, and they're allowing only the males to be born. And in another, say, 10 or 20 years, there's going to be a critical shortage of wives. The young men won't have any women to marry, so it will, in a sense, dilute the -- what they consider the racial purity of the Han Chinese.

And that to them will be a great tragedy, because then they will have to be importing wives from Indonesia and others countries in order to fill up the population.

BLITZER: Some also said that you're letting China off the hook too easily. They're pointing to what you said the other day on "LARRY KING LIVE" in the midst of the standoff. Let me read to you one of the statements that you did say then: "What we ought to do is to say this was a wind draft, and blame it on the wind. Say it's an unfortunate thing. Find some fig leaf that both sides can put on and get on with life. It is too important to both countries to continue some sort of comity to blow it up on the basis of this one plane."

And the argument is that you're letting the Chinese simply off the hook?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, I believe that's what it was. The pilot's name, interestingly enough, was Wang Wei. I mean, of all the ironies, Wang Wei, and he was a hot-dog pilot, and he crashed their plane. But the Chinese, in order to save face, don't want to admit it. So why not blame it on the wind, say it was a wind sheer? And then, both countries can continue their business, and we get our plane back, we get our pilots and our crew back, and we can continue some sort of a relationship.

I think to blow this incident into a potential war would be tragic, and that is what could happen.

BLITZER: What kind of grade would you give President Bush for his first 100 days in office?

ROBERTSON: I would say a B-plus, A-minus, something like that. I think he's done quite well in most of the issues.

BLITZER: One of the issues that you've had some complaints about, some problems is the so-called "faith-based initiative" that he's put forward that would allow federal tax dollars to go to various religious organizations to provide social services. Do you still have a serious problem with that still?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, I agree with the concept. It's a wonderful, noble concept that faith-based organization should have the same treatment as secular organizations. I mean, that goes without saying. They do a superb job.

The problem is the implementation. If the government forces these faith-based institutions to give up their unique distinctives and no longer preach the Gospel or read the Bible or have prayer or use spiritual counseling, if that's denied them, then of course the government will ruin the organizations.

So I just want to make sure that they're protected and I'm not sure that the Bush administration has fully thought through all the ramifications of current federal law in that regard.

BLITZER: OK, Pat Robertson, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

ROBERTSON: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

BLITZER: Always a pleasure.

ROBERTSON: Thank you.


BLITZER: And this programming note: At the bottom of the hour, is China a partner or an adversary of the United States. Greta Van Susteren will have more on the tensions between the United States and China.

And up next, it's hard to believe that what we are about to report can still happen in the 21st century. But authorities in Africa are racing against time, searching for a ship with a human cargo: scores of children allegedly sold into slavery. We'll have a live report from the west coast of Africa.

And later, escalating violence in the Middle East. Israel strikes at Gaza after one of its towns is shelled, and Syria puts its forces in Lebanon on alert.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Authorities in West Africa are trying to bring an end to a nightmare voyage and the United States has agreed to help search for a ship believed to be carrying children sold into slavery. The vessel is thought to have departed, with its human cargo, from Benin two weeks ago.

It was turned away from Gabon and was last seen Thursday after being turned back from Cameroon. In an area which was once the center of the historic slave trade, poverty-stricken parents often turn their children over to traffickers and smugglers, who promise to find them jobs only to sell them into slavery.

As the vigil for this group of children continues, CNN's Stephanie Halasz joins us now live by satellite telephone from the port of Cotonou in Benin. Stephanie, first of all, tell us what's happening right now.

STEPHANIE HALASZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just a few minutes ago, a vessel came to the port here. It rolled slowly down the port key and has just now come to a halt. It is called Eterino. That's the name that we have been looking for. That is the name of the cargo vessel that people believe carried the children numbered up to a hundred...


BLITZER: Looks like we have lost our satellite communication with Stephanie.

Stephanie, can you hear me?

Unfortunately we can't. What she -- what Stephanie was about to report was that a ship has now come into the port in Benin, and it's unclear whether this is the specific ship that is allegedly carrying those children who have supposedly been sold into slavery. We'll of course try to reconnect with Stephanie as soon as we can and bring the latest on what is going on.

And just ahead, if you haven't filed your taxes yet, don't worry. If you live on the East coast, you still have 3 1/2 hours. And if you still need a bit of extra help, you may be able to find it at an unlikely place, your grocery store. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

In other news tonight, the United States is urging restraint in the Middle East. Palestinians opened fire on Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank. Israeli forces quickly returned fire. Palestinians say the attack was in retaliation for an Israeli air strike on a Syrian radar station in Lebanon, which killed three Syrian soldiers.

More trouble within the airline industry. Comair Airlines announced today it's cutting 200 pilot positions. The move comes three weeks after Comair pilots walked off the job. Comair is a subsidiary of Delta Airlines, and says the cutbacks are a result of financial restructuring, which also includes plans to sell 17 of its 119 aircraft.

In Cincinnati, the mother of an African-American teen fatally shot by police spoke out today urging calm. Angela Leisure called for an end to the violence sparked by the killing of her son last weekend. Today, the city's mayor lifted an overnight curfew and announced plans for the creation of a commission to improve race relations.

In Birmingham, Alabama, jury selection began today in the trial of a former Ku Klux Klansman suspected in the notorious 16th Street Baptist Church bombing at the height of the civil rights era. The suspect, 62-year-old Thomas Blanton, has plead not guilty to taking part in the 1963 attack, which killed four African-American girls. If convicted, Blanton could get life in prison.

Tonight on "The Leading Edge," procrastinating taxpayers have just a few hours left to file their taxes. CNN national correspondent Gary Tuchman joins us now live from Atlanta, where the IRS is helping taxpayers with last-minute questions -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf. Grocery stores aren't just for shopping anymore. Here in the state of Georgia, the Internal Revenue Services has sent its employees to 32 Kroger grocery stores to help out with tax preparation for free. Each of these 32 stores is open until midnight. And you can see, there is a line of people wanting to get their tax prepared for free. They've waited for the last second in many cases, and that's why they're here.

Now, there are other programs in other states similar to this. But the IRS says Georgia is a model program, that there's more public/private cooperation in this state than any other state. One of the main reasons the IRS is doing this, to encourage people to e-file.

With us right now is Belinda McCafferty. She's with the Internal Revenue Service. Let me bring you over here Belinda so we can see you better if we can.

Belinda, let me ask you this: What percentage right now, nationally, do we have for e-filing this year?

BELINDA MCCAFFERTY, IRS: Right now, we have 44 percent of the returns that have been filed have been filed electronically, and that's an increase over last year.

TUCHMAN: That's a big increase. So when people come here now, are there a lot of people who don't trust Internet e-filing and they want it on paper?

MCCAFFERTY: Well, actually, we haven't had that many in this store that have not wanted the return filed electronically. The advantages clearly are that it's more accurate, and they get their tax refund faster.

TUCHMAN: That's an important point. You can't stress that enough. How much faster do you get your refund if you file on the Internet?

MCCAFFERTY: If you file electronically, you'll get your refund in 10 to 12 days as opposed to six to eight weeks if you file it manually. So, that's a big advantage to filing electronically.

TUCHMAN: Thanks for joining us.

Right now around this time -- we're talking right now it's 8:24 p.m. Eastern Time. Most post offices are closed. So people are actually coming to these Kroger grocery stores to bring their checks if they owe money to the IRS.

We are told that last year five people brought checks to grocery stores for more than $1 million in taxes, including one man who brought a check for $3.2 million to the Kroger grocery store. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Gary Tuchman in Atlanta, thank you very much.

Up next, I'll open our mailbag: Should President Bush have gone to meet the 24 U.S. crew members upon their return home? Many of you have some strong feelings about that. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back. The FBI is tracing a series of cyberattacks on U.S. Web sites, ignited by the standoff with China. The home page of (ph) was replaced by a picture of the Chinese fighter pilot Wang Wei. A Web site which hosts the hackers union of China posted 10 sites recently hacked in memory of Wang.

And China tops our mailbag tonight as well. Lots of reaction to the homecoming of the 24 U.S. crew members from China.

B.J. from Minneapolis complains about President Bush's decision to skip the ceremony in Washington state: "Traveling to the West Coast would have required a whole day of work for him and would have broken up his holiday weekend on the ranch. My comment is not meant to be snotty, but rather to point out just how predictable he is."

But Michael from North Carolina has a very different view: "He did send a message, and for us in the military, the protocol involved with the president would mean more personal working, security screening and having a huge ceremony. We know he supports us, but the intent was to get the individuals home with family."

Finally, Debbie in Tempe, Arizona, writes about the recent problems with China and Japan as well as in Cincinnati: "While all three incidents differ in many ways, they have one thing in common. All in part touch on the issue of cultural diversity. Our world is a smaller place today, but clearly Americans, right or wrong, could use more education on different cultures."

Remember, you can e-mail me at I just might read your comments on the air. And you can read my daily online column and also get a preview of our nightly program by going to our WOLF BLITZER REPORTS Web site:

Please stay with CNN throughout the night. Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" is Larry King's guest at the top of the hour. Up next, Greta Van Susteren. She's standing by to tell us what she has -- Greta.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST, CNN'S "THE POINT": Wolf, we're going to explore whether there are tough times ahead with China and the United States. Plus, an author has a new book. He suggests some high-ranking former government employee should be indicted for war crimes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Greta. Sounds good. We'll be watching.

Tomorrow night, we'll preview the start of U.S.-China talks in Beijing. My guest: the former United States ambassador to China James Sasser.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "THE POINT" with Greta Van Susteren begins right now.