April 10, 2001 11:00 pm

Patience pays off

in release of crew

George W. Bushs first major test in his presidency has been getting back the crew of a U.S. spy plane that landed April 1 on a Chinese island.

The Chinese HAD a simple solution that would lead to the release of the 24 crew members: the United States was required to apologize for the mid-air crash that ended in the apparent death of a Chinese fighter pilot.

The Bush administration did not want to apologize because that would amount to admitting responsibility for the crash.

But a deal was announced this morning. The United States agreed to say it was very sorry that the American spy plane was forced to land in Chinese territory on Hainan Island.

The U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance aircraft was in international air space when the Chinese plane flew too close and clipped its wing. The Chinese fighter plunged into the ocean, while the U.S. plane landed on the island.

The United States did not owe China an apology. But the United States had to respond in such a way that would prompt the Chinese government to release the U.S. crew.

A consideration had to be the Chinese pilots widow, Ruan Guoqin, who wrote a stinging letter to Bush rebuking him for being too cowardly to offer an apology for the collision.

Our 6-year-old son has kept asking me when his father will come home, her letter said. I pray and call out time and again hoping in tears that there will be a miracle.

Bush followed up the letter by writing a humanitarian response to the widow, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

THE UNITED STATES is now willing to say it is very sorry for the incident. But should our nation take further steps to help Ruan Guoqin and her family through their loss? Maybe the United States should make some payment to the family. Would a contribution to establish a public memorial for the downed pilot be appropriate?

The gestures could be meaningful to China, Guoqin and the international community. It would show compassion for a woman who has lost something she and her family can never replace.

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