Pickering Visit Explains Embassy Bombing

Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering and several intelligence officers from the C.I.A., D.I.A. and Pentagon met with Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and other officials on June 17 to present an report on the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7 during a NATO airstrike, and offer compensation to the families of those killed.

The bombing and ensuing public reaction in China have resulted in the greatest strain on bilateral ties since the 1979 normalization. While the Chinese officials listened carefully to the five-and-a-half hour presentation, they remain dubious that it was an accident. On June 30 the Chinese government said that it will not resume negotiations until it receives a convincing explanation.

Embassy Bombing

The Chinese embassy was mistaken for the intended target--the Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement, which is located just 200 yards from the embassy. Reliance on an outdated map, aerial photos, and the extrapolation of the address of the federal directorate from number patterns on surrounding streets were cited by American officials as causing the tragic error.

Three people, who were identified as journalists by the Chinese government, were killed and others wounded when five satellite-guided 2,000 pound B-2 bombs hit the embassy. A June 25, 1999 New York Times article, however, stated that two of the three were intelligence officers, killed when the bombs hit the embassy’s intelligence gathering nerve center. The Chinese government denies this allegation.

Chinese Reaction

President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and other members of the administration immediately apologized to the Chinese people and government for this tragic error. Popular sentiment, though, holds that a country with such advanced technology as the U.S. could not have made such a mistake and the bombing, therefore, was a deliberate act by the U.S. to undermine China’s development. In reaction China halted negotiations on military exchange, proliferation, human rights, and WTO entry.

Chinese citizens across the country vented their anger by vandalizing and attacking Western property, including embassies, consulates, and companies. In Chengdu, the home of the Consul General was burned down. American Ambassador James Sasser and a small group of Marines spent four days trapped in the U.S. embassy while the protests raged. During that time the U.S. and British embassies sustained heavy damage, but Chinese police prevented citizens from entering either building.

American news coverage of events in China alleged that the government fanned the flames of public discontent to deflect anger associated with the tenth anniversary of events in Tiananmen Square. News stories described the use of buses to take citizens to Beijing’s embassy area to protest, the distribution of officially approved slogans in several cities (to prevent political activists from criticizing the government), and the tolerance of vandalism by the police across the country. To resume negotiations, the Foreign Ministry released the following conditions for the U.S. to meet:

Investigation into bombing

An investigation initiated in May revealed that an outdated database listed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade at its previous address. Officials from the C.I.A. and Pentagon explained that despite the elaborate system of checks built-into the targeting protocol, the coordinates did not trigger an alarm because the three databases used in the process all had the old address.

On June 23, U.S. Intelligence officials disclosed that the targeting of the federal directorate was questioned by a mid-level intelligence officer prior to the bombing. The intelligence officer, familiar with the original target, raised the question among his colleagues at the C.I.A. and the European Command, but did not, according to Intelligence officials, do so with his superiors.

Implications for U.S.-China Ties

Although the U.S. and China share the common interests of seeing China join the WTO, preserving peace on the Korean peninsula, and preventing nuclear proliferation in Asia, the embassy bombing, coupled with U.S. concerns about Chinese nuclear espionage have eroded ties on both sides. At press time while dialogue began in other areas, World Trade Organization negotiations had not resumed.

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