After 5 1/2 hours of meetings detailing how the United States came to bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Chinese government officials remained "skeptical" that the attack was an accident, according to a member of the U.S. presidential delegation that offered the explanation.
The delegation of diplomats and intelligence officials, led by Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, also delivered a letter from President Clinton to his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin offering to pay compensation to the families of those killed and injured in the May 7 bombing. The United States has also agreed to discuss the issue of the damage done to the embassy.
The Pickering delegation held discussions with Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and Yang Jiechi, the ministry's chief diplomat responsible for American affairs, as well as a number of Chinese military officers. U.S. officials presented the most complete account yet of the attack, saying that a series of mistakes over an extended period of time was to blame. Their Chinese counterparts said they were not convinced.
"They said it was hard to believe so many things could go wrong at the same time, and I think the American public is going to feel the same way," said the U.S. official.
The U.S. side presented the Chinese with a report detailing the errors, and will release the information publicly in the United States within days, according to a U.S. official. The official emphasized that it was not merely a faulty map that led the United States to mistakenly target the embassy and hit it repeatedly with precision bombs. U.S. officials first pointed to an outdated map as a key explanation for the attack last month. Today, officials said that explanation is much too narrow.
"It's a more complicated series of mistakes, rather than one mistake," said the U.S. official, who spoke on background. "It's not a faulty map. It's a more complicated set of mistakes."
Chinese relations have taken a steep downturn following the bombing, with China suspending a series of important military and arms control contacts.
The U.S. delegation sought to make a clear distinction between its efforts to explain and compensate for the bombing in an "appropriate" fashion, and its overall relationship with China.
"We certainly don't intend to make amends for the accident through policy concessions," said a member of the U.S. delegation. The official added that the Chinese have not asked them for such concessions. But in recent weeks, Chinese officials have tied a number of important bilateral issues to the bombing.
The U.S. Embassy noted that China has agreed to discuss the issue of damage done to U.S. property in China during four days of raucous demonstrations following the bombing. Regarding China's public demands that the "perpetrators" of the bombing be held responsible, the delegation told the Chinese that the "issue of accountability" will be addressed. The Chinese did not ask the delegation "to come up with any specific names or groups or institutions now," said a U.S. official.
On the fundamental question of whether Chinese leaders will ever completely accept the U.S. explanation on the bombing, U.S. officials were pessimistic.
"We don't have any illusions that they will turn around on a dime and say, `Oh, we were wrong. We see the light,' " said one member of the delegation.
"It may be in the end that we have to agree to disagree," added another member of the delegation.