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    A Times Editorial

    A standoff with China

    Only after China releases a U.S. plane and crew can Washington and Beijing begin to deal constructively with broader issues raised by this crisis.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001

    Neither the United States nor China has any rational interest in creating a lingering crisis out of the midair collision that has left the crew of a U.S. spy plane in detention on a Chinese island. However, each day without a resolution makes it more difficult for Washington and Beijing to back away from their tough rhetoric and mutual suspicion.

    China should immediately release the crew and plane and temper its demands for a U.S. apology. At the same time, the Bush administration needs to give China room for a graceful retreat. So far, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have maintained a delicate balance, showing justifiable concern for our crew while reiterating their desire for constructive long-term relations with China. Eventually, though, the White House may have to address China's legitimate concerns over an elaborate spying operation we would never tolerate so close to our own shores.

    The little evidence released so far shows the collision between the Navy EP-3 spy plane and the Chinese jet fighter occurred over the South China Sea, in international airspace, and probably was an accident. Despite China's accusations, it is highly unlikely that the slower EP-3 was responsible for the collision. Radar should establish where the collision occurred, and flight data should show which aircraft bumped the other.

    China has the burden of proving its claim the American crew acted improperly in making an emergency landing at Hainan, where Chinese soldiers surrounded the aircraft and detained the crew and plane. The EP-3 carries advanced electronics that absorb codes, signals and communications like a vacuum. Beijing couldn't be expected to turn down a chance to ransack the plane and score a rare intelligence coup. The best the United States can hope for is that the crew succeeded in destroying the most sensitive equipment and data before Chinese soldiers surrounded the plane.

    China still hasn't adequately explained why the American crew was kept incommunicado for days. The delay may be evidence of differences within Beijing's secretive leadership over the appropriate response to the incident. U.S. diplomats were finally granted access to the crew Tuesday, but such a delay is unacceptable during peacetime, especially on the part of a country eager to win American goodwill to advance its standing on the global stage.

    Only after the crew and plane are safely home should U.S. officials be willing to consider negotiating broader disputes with China over territory and surveillance. Each nation routinely spies on the other, but that activity has been background static in a broader relationship of increasing economic and diplomatic cooperation. China's escalation of this incident makes it harder for the two sides to promote their mutual security and economic interests. Already the Chinese response has spurred those pushing to expand American arms sales to Taiwan and to further isolate Beijing.

    The meeting Tuesday between U.S. diplomats and the downed crew should mark the first step back from a genuine crisis. The Bush team should stay resolute. China is in no position to make demands until the U.S. crew and plane are returned safely, and until China offers proof the mission fell outside accepted norms of international intelligence-gathering.

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