On this day in 1999, President Bill Clinton apologizes directly to Chinese President Jiang Zemin on the phone for the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, that had taken place six days earlier. Clinton promised an official investigation into the incident.
Clinton called the bombing an isolated and tragic event and insisted it was not deliberate, contrary to what Chinese officials were claiming. At the time, American forces were part of a U.N. effort to help end a bloody sectarian war in Yugoslavia. Three people were killed in the embassy bombing and 20 others injured. The bombing incited protests at the U.S. and British embassies in China and briefly threatened to derail talks between the U.S. and China regarding weapons proliferation, international security and human rights. Despite Clinton’s public and written apology, Chinese newspapers and officials insisted that the U.S. had deliberately attacked the embassy. Chinese movie theaters banned American films and radio stations refused to play American music in protest.
Clinton had issued an earlier public apology to the Chinese on May 10, but had been unable to reach Jiang personally by phone until the 14th. Clinton had also sent a letter to the Chinese president on May 13, with an explanation and apology and signed an official Chinese condolence book in the presence of China’s Ambassador Li Zhaoxing in the Oval Office. Behind the scenes, however, Clinton and U.S. officials, including Stanley O. Roth, then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, were vexed by the inexplicable delay in President Jiang’s willingness to accept the phone call from President Clinton. Roth also noted before a Senate Investigation Committee on May 27 that China failed for several days [after the accidental bombing] to carry out its obligation to provide for the security of U.S. diplomatic personnel [within China].
Tensions remained high between the U.S. and China until four months later, when talks between the two nations resumed regarding China’s desire to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).