The crippled Navy plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
"Nobody is talking about it publicly, but the subject was successfully broached," at the talks in Beijing, an administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
What the United States wants is an expanded Incident at Sea agreement, which will put in place clearly defined "rules of the road" regarding U.S. electronic intelligence-gathering surveillance flights off China's coast, administration officials said.
Beijing claims "illegal rights" in asking that the United States fly no planes inside its self-proclaimed 200-mile "economic exclusion zone," according to American Enterprise Institute China expert James Lilley. However, the supposed "exclusion zone" includes international airspace, and China makes similar surveillance flights near other countries.
In 1998, the United States and China signed an Incident at Sea agreement, but it was "very loose and flexible," Lilley said.
Administration officials said they were attempting to replace that agreement by implementing carefully defined rules that would govern U.S. flights along the Chinese coast. A new accord would mean annual meetings with Chinese officials to discuss the interaction of each other's military aircraft and ways to make such encounters safer.
The United States holds annual bilateral talks with a number of nations regarding the subject, including the United Kingdom, these officials said.
These sources described the talks with China as "a U.S. win." One official commented, "We've already got 90 percent of what we wanted," referring to the return of the 24-member crew of the Aires II electronic-intelligence-collecting plane.
Although the Chinese have appeared to take a hard line, refusing to return the aircraft and accusing the U.S. plane of causing the accident that killed a Chinese pilot, administration officials said they were unperturbed.
"China has got to appear to its own public as having stood up strongly to the United States. It's all a process of face-saving," one said. "We understand that."
But Lilley was not so sanguine. The Chinese dictatorship, which he described as "aging and uncertain," is using anti-Americanism to build political unanimity, and it's dangerous, he said.
"They've unleashed anti-Americanism, they surpressed it, then unleashed it again. If it gets out of hand, it can go and bite them in the ass. They are riding a tiger."
One U.S. military official said that an "Incident at Sea" agreement "is something very much desired by U.S. military forces, especially the U.S. Navy and Air Force."
Such an agreement with the Soviet Union has averted many potentially nasty encounters, these sources said. Over a decade ago, the two countries signed an accord, and the result was the eliminiation of some dangerious incidents. One involved a dangerous game of chicken that took place at sea in 1988 when the USS Caron and the USS Yorktown entered the Black Sea, where both ships proceeded to sail 7 miles off the Soviet coast. Such transit is permitted under international law, said experts.
But the USS Caron was a "floating listening post," part of the National Security Agency's Naval Security Group, and using one of the most advanced collection systems called Ships Signal Exploitation Spaces System. The 18-man SSES NSA unit is headed by a chief petty officer. The purpose of the voyage was to record data on Soviet defense radars and communications, U.S. intelligence sources said.
The Soviets tired of this game of chicken and deliberately rammed the Caron to scare other U.S. ships from electronic surveillance, they said.
According to a U.S. Navy official, the Soviets and United Sates later got together and said: "Look, this is a dangerous game. Aren't there some rules we can establish that will keep the lives of crews and officers from being in danger?" Such an agreement was made, and "the Soviets wrote in North Korea," the official said.
But Lilley warned that the United States should approach the talks with caution. "You have to be damn careful that you're not moving your flight plans around because of Chinese claims of illegal rights in its economic exclusion zone."
He said the talks had to employ bargaining.
"If China asks that the United States make no flights within 200 miles of their coast, Beijing has to be firmly told no. And if they come up with a compromise proposal, the United States must ask for this and this and this and this," Lilley said.
Chinese dictator Jiang Zemin has vowed no concessions on issues of national sovereignty after delicate talks on the U.S plane ended without an agreement. His hard-line comments, reported in state media on Saturday, reinforced China's hypocritical position that the United States must end surveillance flights in international airspace.
"China does not wish to see confrontation," the People's Daily quoted Jiang as saying as Chinese leaders expressed their condolences to the family of Wang Wei, the Chinese fighter pilot who died after striking the U.S. plane April 1.
Said Lilley: "There has to be a way of saying that, even though we disagree over the circumstances of the Chinese pilot's death, we can put rules in place that will prevent another such death from occurring."
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