Both Sides Claim Victory in China-U.S. Standoff

China says it got an apology. The United States got its air crew back. Who really won is open to debate.

A compromise statement of regret worked out by Beijing and Washington in a crisis over a U.S. spy plane held by China let both sides claim victory in the Cold War-style encounter.

"The United States finally apologizes!" the state-run Beijing Morning Post proclaimed Thursday. Some Chinese expressed private irritation that Beijing hadn't exacted a bigger penalty, but there were no public protests, which the government has discouraged.

China agreed to free the crew of a U.S. spy plane after President Bush said Washington was "very sorry" for the loss of a Chinese pilot and the American plane's landing without permission on a Chinese island in the South China Sea.

State media declared victory and told Chinese to unite behind Beijing's decision to let the air crew go for "humanitarian reasons."

The noon news on state television Thursday broadcast interviews with unnamed "ordinary citizens" backing Beijing's decision.

"Turn patriotism into strength," said a front-page commentary in the flagship Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily.

A piano salesman in Haikou, where the U.S. air crew were detained after making an emergency landing, said it was "for the best."

"Dragging things out would affect the economy just when it's got going, and that's the most important thing," said the man, who would give only his surname, Wu.

Others disagreed.

"The U.S. hasn't done enough. We're very dissatisfied. It all happened way too fast," said Sophie Li, a college student practicing her English lessons outdoors on the campus lawn of Hainan University in Haikou.

In the anonymous realm of Internet chat rooms, there was a groundswell of criticism over the crew's release.

Chinese online sites are monitored by censors who delete material considered subversive or offensive. But, with public protests banned, they have provided a lively forum for Chinese to vent opinions.

"China, how could you give in?" said a writer to the bulletin board who used the pen name "Flames of Tenderness."

The American crew "are murderers who should face criminal trial. Just letting them go means that any murderer will think he can apologize and get to go home, too," said another, identified as Hui Hui.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue reiterated Thursday that Beijing blames the United States for the in-flight collision April 1 between the spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter, and is keeping the American aircraft for investigation.

The two sides agreed to hold a meeting April 18 to discuss the collision. Zhang said China reserved the right to raise issues such as compensation for the lost pilot and jet and its objections to U.S. surveillance flights off its coast.

"The incident has not been fully settled. We hope that the U.S. side will adopt a serious attitude toward China's standpoint on the incident and handle it properly," said President Jiang Zemin, in Uruguay on a 12-day Latin American tour, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

It is unclear how the incident will affect Jiang's standing in the Communist Party and with China's influential generals. Analysts believe Jiang was under pressure from the hawkish People's Liberation Army to take a hard line with the Bush administration.

"This was a severe threat to our national security. It's not a matter of a couple of words of apology," said Wang Xiaodong, an author and social critic.

Nevertheless, Xinhua said military officials supported the government's "correct policy."

The emergency landing on Hainan island by the crippled U.S. Navy EP-3E after the collision was a windfall for the military. U.S. officials assume China stripped the aircraft of its sophisticated surveillance equipment.

American officials say the plane crew deleted top secret codes and intelligence information before Chinese troops boarded the plane, but it isn't clear yet how effective they were.

U.S. officials said there were no plans to end spy flights in international airspace -- flights that China contended again Thursday violate its national sovereignty.

"We also hope the U.S. side will not make any miscalculation on this issue and refrain from doing anything that will further complicate the issue," said Zhang, from the Foreign Ministry.

At the same time, Jiang faces other realities.

Beijing wants U.S. support for its bid to join the World Trade Organization this year and for its campaign to host the 2008 Olympics.

"The top leaders are very cautious in dealing with the United States. Relations are just too important," said Zhang Yebai, a foreign-policy expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who advises the government.

China's neighbors welcomed a settlement, which some feared could affect peace talks between North and South Korea, territorial disputes in Southeast Asia and billions of dollars in business.

Taiwan said it was "delighted" by the American crew's release. Some on the island, which China claims as part of its territory, had feared that the standoff would affect a U.S. decision expected this month on selling it arms.

"The crisis hasn't ended for Taiwan. It has just begun," said Taiwanese political scientist Chao Chun-shan.