"We have waited for the Chinese government to do the right thing. But now it is time for our servicemen and women to return home,'' Bush said in a brief statement from the Rose Garden.
Speaking shortly after U.S. diplomats at an air base on Hainan Island met with the crew of the EP-3 reconnaissance plane for the first time since its midair collision with a Chinese fighter jet Sunday, Bush said the crew were well, but urged the Chinese not to make an accident into an incident by continuing to hold the plane.
Earlier Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was concerned about the way the Chinese regime was handling the situation.
"If we resolve it quickly, it will not affect overall relations between the United States and China," Powell told reporters in Florida.
The U.S. officials who met with the 24 crew members said they were given no timetable for their release.
In Washington, Pentagon officials said they were concerned the aircraft would never be returned. They speculated that China would say it is holding it as evidence of U.S. violation of international law. "Chances of getting this airplane back are pretty close to nil," a former intelligence official said.
The official, who has seen classified satellite photos of the base, said Tuesday the Chinese have removed equipment from the spy plane. There are about a half-dozen images from two KH-11 "keyhole" satellites, four of which are clear enough to see details, including racks of equipment removed and sitting on the tarmac around the aircraft and damage to the EP-3's propeller, engine and wing.
However, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday the crew of surveillance aircraft was trained in "emergency destruction procedures" to be able to destroy sensitive equipment to prevent it from falling into unauthorized hands.
The crew had only about 15 minutes between the collision and the landing on Hainan Island to disable the equipment, a preplanned prioritized process that includes the shredding of classified paper, erasing of computer hard-drive memory, and the physical destruction of equipment. Because the aircraft was damaged sufficiently to force an emergency landing, it was likely a bumpy and hazardous descent to the ground during which the crew would be strapped in for their own safety, limiting their movements, a former Pentagon official told United Press International.
The Pentagon does not yet know how far through that checklist the crew got before the plane landed and was boarded by the Chinese.
"The plane had been damaged in the collision, so priority one was getting safely on the ground. And what activities were being carried out by the other members of the crew whose responsibility was not the safe flight of the aircraft, we simply don't have that knowledge," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley at a press conference Tuesday.
The midair collision and subsequent emergency landing of the U.S. plane and detention of the crew has shaped up as Bush's first major foreign policy crisis, which comes at a time of increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Relations chilled markedly last month when Bush refused to give visiting Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen assurances that the United States would not sell high-tech warships to Taiwan in the annual April arms deal between Washington and Taipei.
The Bush administration considers China a strategic adversary, not a strategic partner. The warships are equipped with the Navy's most advanced anti-missile radar system, called Aegis, and could be used to shoot down Chinese ballistic missiles.
Asked if he thought if the political fallout could affect U.S. plans for weapons sales to Taiwan, Powell said the two issues were not connected. The United States regarded the arms sales "in the context of our obligations to Taiwan," he told reporters.
But the incident and speculation about what the Chinese military would be able to learn from the plane will play into the United States' strategic calculations in the region.
Pressure on the administration to OK the sale of Aegis-equipped destroyers was ratcheted up Tuesday by a bipartisan group of 82 House lawmakers.
They wrote Bush, urging him to ensure that Taiwan gets the new warships, as well as submarines and aircraft.
Pentagon spokesman Quigley demurred from labeling the detained crew hostages or captives, restraint that may signal an attempt by the administration to ratchet down inflammatory rhetoric between the two countries, which escalated Tuesday with a call from Chinese President Jiang Zemin for the United States to take full responsibility for the collision and to stop immediately similar flights in airspace near China.
Quigley said the United States had no intention of stopping the flights. "That's not what we're planning," he said.
He protested media characterizations of the EP-3 as a "spy" plane, calling it instead a surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft on a routine electronic signals collection mission in international airspace. Calling it a "spy" plane, Quigley said, implies the crew was engaged in espionage on Chinese territory, which he said was not the case.
It may also complicate the release of the crew. Pentagon officials expressed concern that China may free the reconnaissance crew first but detain the pilot and navigator longer, believing them to be responsible for willfully penetrating Chinese airspace.
The last communication from the plane Sunday was an assurance from the commander that he had landed safely and all members of the crew were unharmed. About 15 minutes before landing the pilot put out a "mayday" call over an open radio channel.
The EP-3 Aries II aircraft is one of the most secret pieces of equipment in the U.S. military arsenal. The Navy owns only about a dozen of the aircraft. Each one carries a huge collection of highly classified sensitive radio receivers and high-gain dish antennae that can detect, record and analyze electronic emissions from deep within enemy territory, according to the Navy.
The plane has four propeller engines and a low wing with a span of nearly 100 feet. It is capable of flying for more than 12 hours at a time with a 3,000-nautical-mile range.
The EP-3 could not have landed in a better place for China or a worse one for U.S. military intelligence. Hainan Island is host to one of China's largest electronic-signals-intelligence complexes and is manned by experts who will now be able to glean critical information on the aircraft's capabilities, Pentagon sources said. Hainan is also home to a major Chinese satellite-communications intercept facility.
Monday, administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the plane was on a mission to eavesdrop on military radio traffic and probe Chinese air defenses.
Tuesday, the Taipei Times reported that the U.S. aircraft was attempting to collect data on China's most-advanced warship a Russian-made Sovremenny-class destroyer when it collided with the jet fighter. The paper quoted an intelligence source as saying Taiwan detected the Navy EP-3 on radar flying in circles at a low altitude near the destroyer.
The intelligence source said two Chinese jet fighters taking off from their base in Guangdong Province arrived to intercept and drive away the Navy plane, which then attempted to fly away after colliding with one of the Chinese jets.
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