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by Antoaneta Bezlova
(IPS) BEIJING --
residents of downtown Beijing have an exciting new topic to mull over in the evenings when they gather in parks and on street corners or take a stroll after dinner -- the coming war with the United States.
"It is time to give a lesson to the Americans," Lao Zhang, a retiree in his late sixties, tells his audience in the neighborhood called Tian Tan, or Temple of Heaven.
"The U.S. always fancies itself as a world policeman and pokes its nose into everything. We can't let little Bush (a reference to President George W. Bush) make fun of us for the next four years."
"If (President) Jiang Zemin wavers once more, the students may take to the streets again," warns fellow retiree Wang Hui. Excitement bubbles in his voice as he recalls the stone-throwing and rioting in front of the United States embassy after an American plane on a NATO mission bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999.
"What is this all about? Have they struck our embassy again?" asks Ren Chunlan, a middle-aged woman who works as a nanny for a foreign family.
She immediately gets a rebuke from everyone: "What kind of Chinese are you? Don't you know the Americans have killed our pilot and entered Chinese air space?"
This and other versions of the plane saga which is unfolding between China and the United States circulate in abundance among average Beijing residents, who otherwise find little excitement in their domestic political life.
A U.S. navy spy plane equipped with advanced eavesdropping technology and carrying 24 people on board made an emergency landing at a southern Chinese air-base on Hainan Island on April 1, after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea. The collision resulted in the loss of the Chinese fighter jet while the pilot, Wang Wei, is still missing.
After the collision, a war of words between Beijing and Washington ensued. President Bush demanded that China return the U.S. navy EP-3 plane and its crew immediately. Jiang, just before beginning a lengthy Latin American tour yesterday, said that the U.S. should apologize, stop its reconnaissance flights close to Chinese territory and "bear all responsibility" for the collision.
But Bush says he will not apologize, and China must release the crew quickly or risk "undermining" bilateral relations. Secretary of State Collin Powell expressed "regrets" over the presumed death of Wang Wei, but stopped short of apologizing.
In Beijing last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi welcomed the U.S. statement of regret as a "step in the right direction" but repeated the demand for a full apology.
As the stand-off over the spy plane between the two sides continues into its sixth day, the issue of apology becomes loaded with special importance. Here, the difference between the American and Chinese political cultures comes fully into the spotlight.
While Washington shuns issuing an apology because of its legal implications, Beijing sees the apology as the only possible way of proving moral quality. The U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was felt very much as a loss of face here and then-president Bill Clinton had to apologize in person.
After the United States issued an apology and compensated the Chinese side for the damages, the incident of the embassy bombing should have been considered a closed chapter in the U.S.-China history.
Yet a sense of anger over the Belgrade bombing is still acutely felt here, and the tough line taken by Chinese leaders on the plane crash is a reflection of their determination not to repeat the experience of 1999.
At that time, the Communist leadership was accused of initial weakness and conciliatory rhetoric which brought protesters out on the streets. They charged that the government was giving in to "imperialist pressure" in order to keep its foreign trade relations stable.
Even these days, despite the bellicose rumblings of many, few ordinary people truly believe the spy plane stand-off will lead to war.
"I don't think there would be a war after this incident either," says Lang Haohe, a Beijing resident in his 40s. "Chinese leaders want to strengthen the economy first and make the country powerful. Only when China is a world economic power, they can think of really confronting the Americans."
Still, getting an apology from the U.S. side over the crash would mean gaining the moral high ground over the new Bush administration. Just how the two countries handle this latest development could provide clues to how they will cooperate during the Bush administration.
But there may well be implications beyond U.S.-China ties. China watchers here say that granting the Chinese side an apology would only reinforce Beijing's long-standing claim to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea.
The U.S. claims that its EP-3 plane was well into international airspace and about 120 km from Hainan Island when it was intercepted by two Chinese fighters, one of which collided with the American plane and subsequently crashed.
Under international law, there is a 22-km limit zone extending off a country's coast which defines the territorial waters and airspace above which it has jurisdiction.
But Beijing appears to be asserting that the incident took place in Chinese air space. China has long claimed a full 200-mile (about 320 kms) economic zone around its bid for the disputed archipelagos of the Spratlys and Paracels, which are also claimed by several Southeast Asian countries.
"An apology from the U.S. side would mean legitimizing Beijing's claims over the disputed areas in the South China Sea," says one Asian diplomat. "I see it as detrimental to the stability of the whole Southeast Asia."
April 9, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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