Liberation Of Kosovo: Apology mission flies to China

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A HIGH-LEVEL delegation left Washington for Peking yesterday on a mission at once deeply humiliating to the United States and crucial to the future of US-Chinese relations.

Thomas Pickering, the US Under-secretary of State, who leads the delegation, is entrusted with delivering Washington's formal apology and explanation for the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last month, in which three Chinese died.

Peking has so far rejected all US attempts to explain the bombing as an accident caused by outdated maps, favouring a variety of conspiracy theories that accuse the US of wanting to curb China's growing international influence. No senior Chinese official has proclaimed any of the conspiracy theories outright, but none has tried to quash them either, leaving Chinese people to believe that Nato and the US deliberately targeted the Chinese embassy.

Most bilateral contacts were frozen after the incident.

According to an "insider" account of the war published at the weekend, desperate measures were taken to placate the Chinese. The Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, dashed to meet the Chinese ambassador in Washington on the night of the bombing and President Bill Clinton broadcast an apology.

The Chinese declined to acknowledge the apology for two days and set out a list of four demands: a formal apology, a full investigation, publication of the results, and punishment of those responsible. The investigation is still in progress, but Mr Pickering is expected to give the Chinese a full account of the findings so far. The demand for punishment of those responsible is unlikely to be met.

China may be disappointed with the rank of Washington's envoy. Washington's reluctance to abase itself further than absolutely necessary over the incident, coupled with thereluctance of American officials to suffer the political indignity associated with the "grand kowtow", left the mission to Mr Pickering.