By Don OberdorferIn China, they still don't believe us
Sunday, May 7, 2000
A year ago today, in the culmination of an astonishing chain of blunders, the U.S. Air Force accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. A year later, nearly all Chinese believe the bombing was a deliberate attack. Unless the United States undertakes much greater efforts to explain what happened, this falsehood about U.S. intentions is likely to haunt America's relations with China and its people for many years to come.
In a trip to China that ended early last week, I was dismayed to hear even internationalist-minded Chinese declare that the attack resulted from a premeditated U.S. plan to destroy the embassy. My concern was deepened by a report from William Watts, a former State Department and National Security Council official who has been a public-opinion specialist on Asia for several decades. Watts had discussed the issue with more than 200 Chinese students and experts in meetings last month in several Chinese cities. He did not find a single person who expressed doubt that the bombing was a deliberate act.
The Chinese people reacted immediately and fiercely to the attack, besieging the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for several days in demonstrations that were facilitated if not encouraged by the Chinese government. The powerful emotional reaction to the bombing may have left Chinese leaders with little choice but to sympathize with the demonstrations even as they sought to prevent serious injury to Americans.
Lest we forget, embassies are extremely sensitive focal points of nationhood, with symbolic importance that far transcends the business transacted there. The attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, more than much larger and more serious military actions elsewhere, shocked Americans during the Tet Offensive of 1968, the turning point of the war in Vietnam. A decade later, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the captivity of its diplomatic staff dominated U.S. foreign policy and much of U.S. public life for 14 months, until the diplomats were released. More recently, the terrorist attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa prompted powerful and nearly immediate retaliatory missile attacks by the Clinton administration.
The bombing of the Chinese Embassy was the result of mistaken identification of that building as the headquarters of a Yugoslav military supply agency by the Central Intelligence Agency, which had never before been called upon to propose NATO bombing targets in the struggle over Kosovo. This mistake was compounded by the complete failure of the U.S. and NATO mechanisms for checking proposed targets, leading to "an error compounded by errors" in the words of Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering. After a full-scale internal investigation, Pickering led a U.S. delegation to Beijing last June to explain what happened to the Chinese government.
The Chinese government has not accepted Pickering's explanation, and little of it has reached the Chinese people. Pickering's report and the testimony to Congress by several U.S. officials are available on Web sites, but have not been presented prominently or convincingly. The Beijing government appears to be using the embassy attack as a club or bargaining stick against the United States. Here important elements of the bureaucracy, especially in the Pentagon, are reluctant to make public details of the mistakes on security grounds and a desire not to embarrass NATO.
The situation reminds me very much of the South Korean popular reaction to the 1980 repression and killings in the city of Kwangju, which were perpetrated by the Korean military but blamed on the United States. Due to political sensitivities in Seoul and bureaucratic drag in Washington, it took nine years for the United States to issue a full and convincing 22-page report on what had happened. In the meantime a generation of Korean youth, and many of its elders, vilified the United States for something it did not do.
A recent article in the New York Times resulting from a journalistic investigation produced more facts and documentation about the mistakes that led to the Belgrade bombing than U.S. agencies have presented to the Chinese or made public here. But I found that some highly placed Chinese had never even heard of the Times article, and in any case tended to discount a journalistic explanation, as opposed to an official one.
It is imperative that the U.S. government or a mixed government/private commission produce a much fuller, franker and better documented report on the bombing of the Chinese Embassy and that this be made public for both Chinese and Americans to see. Such a report might not convince the majority of Chinese today, but eventually the truth will sink in. Otherwise, a false belief about U.S. intentions and actions, given added credence by unconvincing apologies or silence that is taken for guilt, will continue to blacken America's name among the people of Asia's rapidly rising power.
Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post diplomatic correspondent, is journalist-in-residence at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.