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  • Envoy Heads to China to Ease Strain

    By Charles Babington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, June 14, 1999; Page A13

    A U.S. delegation will depart for Beijing today to explain how NATO bombers destroyed China's embassy in Belgrade, a step the Clinton administration hopes will begin to repair U.S.-Sino relations, which were badly strained by the bombing and by allegations of Chinese espionage in American nuclear labs.

    Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering will head the U.S. mission, which is largely a diplomatic formality. Within hours of the May 7 bombing, NATO officials said it was an accident caused by the use of outdated maps of Belgrade that showed the Chinese Embassy at a previous address. The B-2 bomber pilots thought they were hitting a Yugoslav military target, NATO officials said.

    President Clinton has apologized several times for the bombing, which killed three Chinese journalists.

    Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Pickering will say the bombing was a "tragic accident" and make clear that "we consider our relationship with China an important one, one that needs to get beyond this."

    Pickering's trip may say more about Chinese than U.S. willingness to improve diplomatic relations. Pickering has been prepared for weeks to bring a formal report on the bombing to Beijing, but Chinese officials refused to invite him for their own political reasons, Clinton administration officials said.

    The embassy bombing generated sympathy for the Beijing government in China and elsewhere, turning attention away from the espionage controversy and the 10th anniversary earlier this month of China's bloody crackdown on a democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Chinese leaders wanted to keep the distraction alive by avoiding closure on the embassy tragedy until the anniversary passed, U.S. sources said.

    "The Chinese had said, 'No, we're not ready, let's wait until after Tiananmen,' " an administration official said.

    Asked how seriously U.S. security has been damaged by Chinese espionage in nuclear weapons labs, Albright said, "I think it's clearly a serious issue." However, she said, "the kind of missiles and all the equipment that we have is so far superior to anything anybody else has that I personally ... believe we have everything we need to be secure."

    Controversy over the embassy bombing and espionage charges sidetracked China's drive to join the World Trade Organization. China's bid is backed by many western corporations that want to expand trade there, but China has not made the monetary and political reforms that the United States and other western nations are demanding.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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