BEIJING - Days after U.S. military officials expressed hope that the damaged surveillance plane stranded on Hainan island could be repaired and flown out of China, Chinese officials said yesterday that they would not permit the plane to fly home.
"The Chinese side has several times stated clearly in relevant Sino-U.S. negotiations that it is impossible for the U.S. EP-3 plane to fly back to the U.S.," said Sun Yuxi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
China did not reject dismantling the plane and sending it home in pieces, the other method the United States has considered for returning the $80 million craft.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The United States believes that if the plane can fly, that that's the most efficient, effective way to get the plane removed from China." He added that "the United States will continue, through the State Department, to work with Chinese officials to resolve the matter."
The Chinese made their announcement a day after the U.S. military resumed surveillance flights in international airspace near China's coast, despite China's objections. Sun said China would make "serious representations" to Washington about the resumption of the flights, which China considers a threat to its national security.
The flights were suspended after the collision April 1 between the EP-3E Aries II and a Chinese jet fighter, which resulted in the loss of the Chinese jet and its pilot.
The damaged U.S. plane made an emergency landing on Hainan, setting off a diplomatic crisis. The 24 U.S. crew members were released after 11 days, but the Chinese have not said whether they will release the aircraft, despite repeated demands by the United States.
Last week, for the first time, Chinese officials allowed U.S. technicians to examine the damaged aircraft. After the inspection, the technicians from Lockheed Martin reported that the plane, which lost its nose cone and one propeller during the collision, could probably be repaired sufficiently to be flown out of China.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had said that he expected the Chinese to release the aircraft, noting that "they wouldn't have allowed an inspection team to go there if they didn't plan to return the airplane."
Many Chinese oppose the plane's return. Their resolve is likely to be strengthened by the U.S. decision to resume the surveillance flights before the fate of the EP-3 was decided.