HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (April 10, 2001 – East-West Wire)---A U.S. apology over the recent air collision above the South China Sea has become more important to an outraged Chinese public than leaders in Beijing, said a Chinese international relations specialist at the East-West Center.

Chinese leaders initially believed the incident took place in Chinese airspace and demanded an apology and U.S. acknowledgment of responsibility, said Shulong Chu, an East-West Center visiting fellow and senior researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing. Chu, who was in Beijing at the time of the collision, said it later became clear that it occurred over what the Chinese consider an exclusive economic zone.

However, the public still expects the original demand for an apology to be met. "A final solution to the crisis needs to show that the Chinese government is continuing its tough stance toward the United States and is standing up for the Chinese people," Chu said.

Despite progress in the U.S.-China standoff over the detention of 24 U.S. service members on Hainan island, researchers said the two countries must still hammer out a joint-communiqué including a statement of U.S. regret that can also serve as an "apology" acceptable to the Chinese government and public.

Christopher McNally, a China specialist at the East-West Center, said the need to assuage public anger might be complicated by China's hard-line military and party members who want to fan nationalism and extend their political leverage. "The leadership cannot afford to be seen as soft on Washington because it will have to sell the final resolution of the incident to the People's Liberation Army, conservative party elements and an enraged public," McNally said.

Each day the Americans remain detained on Hainan increases the specter of permanent damage to the U.S.-China relationship, McNally added. "The Chinese leadership has dug itself in on the issue of an apology. It now walks a tightrope between demanding a full-fledged apology to assuage Chinese public sentiments and trying to salvage Sino-U.S. relations," McNally said.

The possibility of a substantial Washington backlash against China cannot be ruled out after the military crewmembers return to the United States, McNally said.

Shulong Chu can be reached at 808-944-7241 or

Christopher McNally can be reached at 808-944-7239 or 

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