China to let U.S. inspect spy plane

Move raises hopes damaged craft will soon return home

`An encouraging sign'

Report of payment indicates potential for further discord


BEIJING - The Chinese government said yesterday that it would allow U.S. officials to inspect a damaged spy plane that has been sitting at a Chinese military base since April 1, when it collided with a tracking jet fighter. The move indicated that Beijing may be ready to ease the rancor over the episode.

A U.S. technical team may leave for China as early as today, possibly from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, a Defense Department official said.

U.S. officials have been pressing to get the plane back, although they concede the Chinese must have pored over the craft. It was packed with secret eavesdropping and radar equipment that was only partly destroyed by the crew members in the frantic moments after they landed on Hainan island.

The Chinese government's brief announcement, by the state-run news agency, Xinhua, lacked the shrill accusative tone of earlier statements about the collision, which caused the loss of the Chinese aircraft and pilot, the emergency landing by the U.S. plane and its 24 crew members, and a tempest in diplomatic relations.

The announcement indicated that secret negotiations have continued since a senior American delegation visited Beijing this month. It said the two sides had "agreed to discuss ways to avoid similar incidents in the future," apparently through an established joint Military Maritime Commission.

But in a demonstration of the continued potential for disagreement, the announcement also repeated China's claim that "the U.S. plane rammed into a Chinese plane" and said that "the U.S. side has agreed to consider making a payment to the Chinese side." Further negotiations, it said, will determine "the specific amount of the U.S. payment and the items to be covered."

The report of a possible payment seemed intended to suggest that the United States may be admitting fault for the collision - something U.S. officials have refused to do, asserting that such flights outside China's 12-mile territorial waters are legal and that the collision was caused by the Chinese pilot's recklessly close swoops.

"There's no way the United States will pay anything that looks remotely like compensation," said a Western diplomat familiar with the talks.

But the diplomat added that the United States has considered paying some relatively modest expenses connected with the return of the EP-3E propeller aircraft. Such payments, if presented in sufficiently ambiguous terms, might give the Chinese leaders a face-saving way to release the plane and reduce unwanted tensions.

In Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney called China's invitation "an encouraging sign."

"The fact that they have now announced that they are willing to have U.S. personnel go in and look at the aircraft and assess what it is going to take to get it back, I think is very positive," Cheney said on "Fox News Sunday."

He said the United States had agreed to reimburse only costs associated with recovery of the $80 million plane, which he said is not in condition to fly. "The nose is gone from it, all of the instruments don't work, two of the engines are out," he said. "There isn't any way you're going to fly that aircraft out of there. Somebody's going to have to go in and load it on something and transport it out, probably a barge or something."

The United States was angered by China's 11-day delay in releasing the crew, which came only after an official statement by the United States that it was "very sorry" about the death of the Chinese pilot and the unauthorized emergency landing.

Chinese officials insist they have proof that the U.S. plane made a sudden and improper swerve, causing the collision 70 miles off Hainan. They say such spy flights are an affront that must be stopped, although they are aware the United States intends to continue them.

The collision aroused nationalist passions in China, and the government's propaganda machine has tried to capitalize on public sympathy for the lost pilot, Wang Wei, featuring him as a model and hero. But the Chinese leaders also have emphasized their desire to preserve good ties with the United States, which they see as vital to China's economic development.

Those ties have been further shredded by the Bush administration's announcement that it will allow the sale of major new weapons to Taiwan, including four destroyers, anti-submarine aircraft and up to eight diesel-powered submarines. China considers Taiwan a renegade province and calls such sales a gross intrusion, as well as a violation of U.S. promises.

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