Bush demands aircrew's return

President tells China to avoid tampering with U.S. spy plane

No response from Beijing

Chinese fighter pilot remains missing after midair collision

April 03, 2001|By Tom Bowman and Jay Hancock | Tom Bowman and Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Amid rising tensions, President Bush pressed China yesterday for the "prompt and safe return" of 24 crew members of a super-secret Navy spy plane that had to make an emergency landing after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet Sunday. Bush also warned the Chinese against "damaging or tampering" with the sophisticated aircraft.

"I am troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to our request for access," said Bush, facing his most serious foreign policy test. "Our embassy officials are on the ground and prepared to visit the crew and aircraft as soon as the Chinese government allows them to do so."

Bush, speaking on the White House lawn, said China's failure to "react promptly" to the request would be "inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice and an expressed desire of both our countries for better relations."

American priorities, he said, are "the prompt and safe return of the crew and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering."

The president also offered American assistance to search for the pilot of the Chinese jet, which crashed. China did not respond to the offer.

The collision forced the Navy plane to land on the Chinese island of Hainan in the South China Sea. Beijing said the crew was safe.

The Chinese aircraft crashed into the sea, its pilot and sole crew member reported missing.

Beyond that, the Chinese government had little to say about the incident, although it is not unusual for the Beijing government to stall in reacting publicly to complicated situations.

The spy-plane standoff comes at an especially delicate time in U.S.-Chinese relations. By the end of April, Bush is expected to decide whether to let Taiwan buy highly sophisticated U.S. warships and communications systems. Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a rebel province, has repeatedly warned Washington that such a sale would seriously harm U.S.-China ties.

Yesterday, three U.S. officials were on Hainan hoping to talk with the crew. But China told U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher that the earliest the officials could see the crew would be Tuesday night Beijing time, meaning this morning Eastern Daylight Time, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Meanwhile, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said early today that a senior Chinese official had told him that Beijing would give immediate access to the crew, according to Reuters news service. Downer said Zhang Wannian, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, had given the assurance during talks in Canberra.

"He told me that the Chinese side would allow consular access to the Americans immediately, consistent with diplomatic norms and that this matter would be resolved through diplomatic means," Downer said.

Bush has demanded Beijing grant immediate U.S. access to the crew of the Navy EP-3 plane forced to land in China after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. Washington has said the collision was accidental. Downer said he had got the impression that "there was no question in his (Zhang's) mind" that the collision was a deliberate act.

Prueher said in Beijing it was "inexplicable and unacceptable and of grave concern to the most senior leaders in the United States government that the aircrew has been held incommunicado for over 32 hours. The Chinese have so far given us no explanation for holding this crew."

The Pentagon is uncertain whether Chinese officials have been on board the plane, a turbo-prop Navy EP-3E Aries II. "We're operating under the assumption they have been," said a Pentagon official. The State Department said the Navy plane carries sovereign immunity and is not subject to search or seizure.

Chinese officials said their jet was shadowing the U.S. plane, which suddenly veered and struck their fighter. Pentagon officials dismissed that version. The Chinese jet, one official said, flew under the much larger, slower moving Navy plane and then collided with it. "They hit us. Nobody in the military has a problem with intercepts. It's a question of how it's done," the official said.

Pentagon officials said yesterday that after sending a "mayday" distress call and preparing for an emergency landing, the Navy plane's crew followed standard procedure and began destroying its sensitive listening equipment, top secret manuals and papers. "They told us, `We've begun destroying,'" said one Pentagon official. "We don't know if they got 100 percent or not."

The second and final radio communication from the crew came when the Navy plane was on the ground in Hainan. One Pentagon official said the report was essentially, "We've arrived safely, no one injured and [the Chinese] have asked us to shut the plane down."

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