Meanwhile, U.S. officials said the Chinese pilot caused the collision with the U.S. Navy plane Sunday.
China's Foreign Ministry welcomed the U.S. expression of regret over the
death of a Chinese pilot in the collision. Senior
ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi called the statement by U.S. Secretary of State
Colin Powell a "step in the right direction," but insisted a formal apology was
still needed. He said the American crew members were being questioned.
A Navy EP-3 outfitted with electronic surveillance equipment collided with
a Chinese F-8 jet on Sunday over the South China Sea. The fighter crashed
into the sea and its pilot has not been found. The U.S. plane was able to
make an emergency landing at a Chinese military base on Hainan Island, where
the crew has been held since.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated China's demand that the United
States "assume full responsibility" for the collision. American
officials have been reticent to assign blame pending an investigation, which
would include U.S. questioning of the Navy crew. U.S. Ambassador to China
Joseph Prueher, during a meeting with Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, refused
to extend an official apology, signaling a digging in of positions by both
The mood Thursday seemed to be showing diplomatic flexibility. Prueher
said that communication was beginning to flow better.
"We are working on meetings, our communication is getting better, and both
our governments are working pretty hard to solve this," he said.
There was no word on a second meeting between U.S. diplomats and the 24
crew members on Hainan. U.S. diplomats Tuesday spent about 40 minutes
with the crew. Because the meeting was in the presence of Chinese
representatives, the United States was not able to get the detailed
information it desired. The Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokesman said another visit to the crew would be possible, but Washington
would first have to take "a cooperative approach."
"The U.S. expression of regret is a step in the right direction by the
U.S. side," spokesman Sun told reporters. "The United States
has made a mistake and should first apologize.
"The United States must assume responsibility and make an explanation to
the Chinese people," he said.
Powell on Wednesday said that the United States regretted the incident but
stopped short of issuing an apology.
"We regret that the Chinese plane did not get down safely, and we regret
the loss of life of the pilot," Powell said. "But now we need to move on. We
need to bring this to a resolution and to review every avenue available to
us. We talked to the Chinese side to exchange explanations and move on."
Before Powell's statement of regret, both countries seemed to be
intensifying diplomatic pressure. Powell, for instance, began referring to
the Navy crew as detainees. In a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Yang
Jiechi, Powell handed Yang a letter for Vice Premier Qian Qichen "discussing
the importance of the release of the crew and the need to find ways to
resolve the issue," a senior State Department official said.
Yang claimed China was the injured party because its plane crashed and
its pilot was missing. But Tang appeared to be open to compromise when he
said that China "hopes to see the collision incident resolved appropriately
as soon as possible," state television and Xinhua reported.
Chinese media reports Thursday focused on the missing pilot's wife and son
and efforts to find him. In an interview with the state-run Xinhua news
agency, the wife of missing pilot Wang Wei accused the United States of
being indifferent to her husband's plight. She told the agency that the
United States should be "held responsible" for the crashing of her husband's
plane and blamed the U.S. Navy plane "for its intrusion into Chinese
airspace and violation of Chinese sovereignty."
The view was much different on the other side of the Pacific. "There's
been an act of piracy against an American aircraft," said Rep. Dana
Rohrabacher, R-Calif. The 24 crew members "should be considered hostages
being held by a hostile power," he insisted.
Pentagon officials said the damage from the accident on the Navy EP-3 was
far more serious than originally thought. They were crediting its safe
landing to the "courageous" aviator. In the time between the collision and
the landing, the crew would have been trying to demolish sensitive documents
and equipment. Exactly how much the crew was able to destroy before the
Chinese took control of the aircraft will remain unknown until each crew
member is interviewed by U.S. officials, a Navy source said.
The EP-3 Aries II aircraft is one of the most secret pieces of equipment
in the U.S. military arsenal. The Navy has about a dozen of the aircraft,
each of which carries highly classified sensitive radio receivers and
high-gain dish antennae that can detect, record and analyze electronic
emissions from deep within enemy territory, the Navy said.
Bush administration officials said Wednesday that they believed the pilot of the Chinese F-8 fighter committed a fatal error that caused the collision.
"We can't say yet for sure until we talk to the crew, but we think it was pilot error," said one U.S. defense official.
One U.S. official said that one reason the crew of the Navy plane was being held incommunicado might have to do with their being able to shed light on the cause of the crash.
U.S. administration officials believe that the tail of the F-8 was knocked off the aircraft when it was sucked into the propellers of the larger U.S. Navy plane.
The EP-3 has a crew of 24, weighs several tons, and is powered by four propeller-driven engines, these officials said.
Two administration officials told United Press International that a propeller-driven engine creates a vortex, or vacuum, in front of the plane that "exhausts to the rear," in the words of one expert. "It's called the Venturi movement," said an administration official.
The speed of the EP-3 was only between 250 to 300 knots, and the fighter slowed to try and get in close to the U.S. aircraft.
"This means that all its flaps were down, all of its control surfaces were being used to create drag," said one expert familiar with both craft.
A U.S. defense official added, "At that speed, the F-8 is almost out of control."
Another administration official agreed. "At a speed as slow as that the F-8 is inherently unstable," he said. The F-8 was "aggressively getting close to the Navy plane, flying alongside, trying to match its speed." But when the fighter tried to power up and dive under the wing, it hit the vortex and was sucked back and lost its tail.
"I think it's a real possibility that the fighter's tail got cut in two by the prop," the official said.
Having suffered damage to an engine and a prop, the American EP-3 would have begun to wobble badly, and it would have shut down the engine and tired to feather the prop.
Meanwhile, the pilot of the fighter would have ejected into the sea.
"The Chinese pilot, when he slowed, was really at the edge of the envelope for his plane," a U.S. defense official said.
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