WASHINGTON - President Bush took a stern stance toward China yesterday as he welcomed home the crew of the U.S. spy plane from Hainan island, saying the United States was blameless in the incident and suggesting that Beijing's conduct had not helped relations between the two nations.
"From all the evidence we have seen, the United States aircraft was operating in international airspace, in full accordance with all laws, procedures and regulations, and did nothing to cause the accident," Bush said outside the White House. "The kind of incident we have just been through does not advance a constructive relationship."
The president had watched television broadcasts of the military plane carrying the 21 men and three women land at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
The crew, greeted by applause from military colleagues and bused to lodging at Pearl Harbor, was scheduled to go through two days of intensive debriefing after being held in China for 11 days. Tomorrow, they are to return to their home base at Whidbey Island, Wash., in time to spend Easter with their families.
"I know I speak for all Americans when I say, `Welcome home' to our flight crew," Bush said. "They represent the best of American patriotism and service to our country."
Bush's comments on China offered a possible preview of his posture toward Beijing in the wake of the confrontation.
The standoff began April 1, after a collision between the U.S. plane and a Chinese jet fighter that was closely tracking it. The Chinese plane plunged into the ocean, and its pilot is presumed dead. The badly damaged American plane managed to land on China's Hainan island, where its crew was held while Beijing demanded an apology for what it said was U.S. responsibility for the collision.
Washington refused to apologize, blaming a reckless Chinese pilot for causing the crash by flying too close and clipping the American plane's wing. Ultimately, China released the crew after Washington issued a statement saying the United States was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot and for landing on Hainan without permission.
Yesterday, Bush noted the "common interests" of the two countries, particularly "the importance of trade" and the desire "to increase prosperity for our citizens." When disagreements arise, Bush said, "I will approach our differences in a spirit of respect."
But the president stressed such differences between the two nations - over the airborne collision, over China's aggressive tailing of U.S. reconnaissance planes, over China's treatment of its dissidents and free spirits.
"We disagree on important basic issues, such as human rights and religious freedom," Bush said. "At times, we have different views about the path to a more stable and secure Asia-Pacific region. I will always stand squarely for American interests and American values."
Events could preclude Washington's relationship with Beijing from getting back on an even keel anytime soon. On Wednesday, the United States introduced a resolution before the United Nations Human Rights Commission criticizing China's repression of Tibetans, political dissidents and the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Congressional conservatives, who were largely silent while the U.S. crew was being held, are expected to condemn China after Congress reconvenes April 23.
In particular, some congressional hawks are expected to lobby against renewing China's favored trade status with the United States. Congress probably will be able to vote again on whether to grant normal trade status to Beijing, because China has not received final approval to join the World Trade Organization - a condition for ending the yearly votes.
"This incident calls into question our current policy of sending American trade dollars to a nation that has displayed signs of hostility toward the U.S.," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is sponsoring legislation to revoke China's favored trade status. "Every American, in government and out, should ask themselves if it is in our national interest."
Thanks in part to support from U.S. corporations, analysts expect any move to revoke China's favored trade status to fail. Even so, congressional debate over the issue could antagonize Beijing.
Congressional conservatives are pressing the Bush administration to approve the sale of sophisticated weapons to Taiwan, which Beijing fiercely opposes.
"The increase in tension and concern about the regime in Beijing will take an idea that was already popular and make it even more so," predicted Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "It certainly means China will have a much harder time making its case against the sale of those military assets."