China today publicly rejected the U.S. explanation that human error, faulty databases, three old maps, and a failed target review process caused the United States to accidentally drop five bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
Following meetings with a U.S. delegation headed by Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, the government broadcast a point-by-point rebuttal of what it said were the main results of a U.S. government inquiry into the deadly May 7 bombing. The report echoed accounts of a trail of errors provided by U.S. officials in Washington in the aftermath of the bombing, which killed three Chinese journalists.
China said the U.S. report "does not hold water." But in a significant shift, Beijing outlined the American government's side of the story to the Chinese people in a relatively balanced and complete manner. A significant portion of the evening news broadcast, which reaches hundreds of millions of viewers, was devoted to its summary of the U.S. report. Earlier U.S. explanations had been ridiculed and given short shrift in the state media.
"Most Chinese people believe [the bombing] was deliberately planned. We need time to release that kind of emotion," said a government foreign policy adviser. "It's very helpful to give the American version to the Chinese public."
Today's contradictory messages from the Chinese government reflect the current delicate position of China's leaders.
President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, China's most Western-leaning senior leader, need good political and economic relations with the United States to pursue their domestic economic reform agenda. They have argued that China must work closely with the West to make itself strong. At the same time, they are loath to seem weak in their dealings with Washington. Moreover, there is disagreement within the ruling bureaucracy on whether the attack was indeed intentional.
Members of the Pickering delegation said they did not expect Chinese leaders to endorse the U.S. version of events, and said there may never be agreement on the issue.
China offered no evidence in its rebuttal to the U.S. explanation. But it cited what it said were the central elements of the report delivered Wednesday by Pickering, and rejected them one by one. The United States has not yet released the text of the investigation report, but members of the U.S. delegation said the report cites a list of mind-boggling mistakes.
According to a summary released by China's official New China News Agency, the U.S. report cites three basic failures.
First, the United States used flawed techniques to locate the intended target, the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement. U.S. military planners relied on three outdated maps -- two Yugoslav maps and a 1997 map produced by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency -- none of which showed the location of the directorate, or the location of the Chinese Embassy.
Second, although U.S. officials visited the Chinese Embassy at its new address several times in recent years, no one fed the new location into U.S. military or intelligence databases. Thus, when the incorrect location for the directorate was fed into several databases for review, no error was detected. Spy satellite photos also failed to indicate any clear markings on the embassy.
Finally, despite a review beforehand, "the system of checks that U.S. and European command forces had in place to catch target errors did not. . . reveal the mistake," according to the summary.
The crew of the B-2 bomber that was sent to drop the five, 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs on the target did so at night and at high altitude and had no way to see the Chinese national flag outside the embassy, the summary said.
In one notable episode cited by the United States, an American intelligence officer was said to have determined the location of the target on one street "by comparing the pattern and numbering system of its parallel streets." The U.S. report said the Army uses such techniques in the field for more general purposes, but they are "totally inappropriate" for precision targeting, according to the Chinese summary.
In its rebuttal, China said the U.S. explanation about the intelligence officer was "not logical," asking: "Why was the Army technique of land navigation used to locate what the U.S. believed to be an important target?"
China reiterated its most important remaining demand -- that the United States "severely punish the perpetrators." China also called for compensation; Washington has already announced that it is working on that.
A better indication of China's post-bombing political stance will emerge in the coming weeks and months when China makes policy decisions.
Foreign Trade Minister Shi Guangsheng said today that it is "not the proper time now to resume" talks on China joining the World Trade Organization "with either the United States or the European Union."
In Washington, Commerce Secretary William Daley reacted with some asperity to that decision.
"If they want to use this tragic accident . . . not to come to the table, that's their position," Daley said at a news conference, adding that unless China opens its markets as part of an accord for WTO entry, "at some point we'll have to sit down with them on a bilateral basis" to discuss Washington's complaints about Beijing's numerous import barriers.
Staff writer Paul Blustein in Washington contributed to this report.