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China Rejects U.S. Envoy's Account of Embassy Bombing

Friday, June 18, 1999

BEIJING--China on Thursday rejected as implausible Washington's official report blaming the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last month on flawed maps of the Yugoslav capital.

"The explanations the U.S. side has supplied . . . are not convincing, and the conclusion that it was a so-called mistaken bombing is by no means acceptable to the Chinese government and people," the official New China News Agency reported Thursday after Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering met with Chinese officials to personally offer Washington's apologies and explanation.

Pickering and his delegation spent nearly eight hours Wednesday with top Chinese diplomats and military officials to give Washington's account of the May 8 bombing that claimed three lives.

The content of the U.S. presentation and China's response were reported at length by the news agency and broadcast on China's national evening newscast.

Without providing concrete evidence refuting Washington's arguments, Chinese officials voiced disbelief that U.S. forces could so consistently defy military procedure and common sense in their operations. Why didn't the U.S. use newer maps? How could the Chinese Embassy's location not be updated in target databases?

Beijing would lose great credibility at home by buying into U.S. explanations that even the most liberal and well-educated Chinese find unimaginable. By publicly airing details of the talks, Beijing managed to appear principled and confident about its position and active in its consideration of public opinion.

By contrast, Pickering, before leaving Beijing on Thursday, released a terse, three-paragraph statement that revealed no details of the report or China's viewpoints.
"We expect that the published report . . . will be issued in Washington in the near future," added one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

From Beijing's standpoint, the ball remains in Washington's court. After weeks of anti-American tirades in the state press claiming that the bombing was not accidental, Beijing signaled in a People's Daily editorial June 3 that it remains committed to "developing friendly cooperation with Western developed nations, including the United States."

But Beijing has also made clear that government contacts and cooperation on a range of issues--including talks on China's accession to the World Trade Organization--will remain on hold until the embassy bombing is satisfactorily explained.
China may never accept the United States' explanations as truthful or its apologies as sincere. But it has made other demands that Pickering indicated are negotiable.

Chinese reports and U.S. diplomats say Pickering expressed willingness to discuss compensation for damage to the Chinese Embassy and for the three Chinese journalists killed and 20 other people wounded in the attack. China has also called for the punishment of those responsible for the bombing.

But compensation or punishment will be difficult for Washington to dish out. Congress is sensitive about placating China in the wake of espionage and campaign finance allegations, and the U.S. military is unwilling to punish individuals for any "institutional failure" that led to the embassy bombing.