The team is headed by the Pentagon's Peter F. Verga, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy support, and includes Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, a defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy who led the diplomatic effort to free the 24-man crew last week.
The team will attempt to win the release of the $80 million surveillance plane, which is not in flyable condition. It would need either substantial repairs by U.S. mechanics or would be shipped out of Hainan, provided the Chinese release it at all.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said unequivocally Friday that the United States wanted the plane back.
"The EP-3 aircraft is United States property. It was worth in excess of $80 million. As the president has indicated from the outset … that subject will be front and center at the April 18th meetings, just as it has been every single day since the crew landed in China," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon press conference.
The team will also present the United States' version of what happened over the South China Sea on April 1, when the EP-3 and a Chinese F-8 collided. The F-8 fighter was cut in half by the accident, and the EP-3 was heavily damaged and sent into a steep and dangerous dive. The pilot was able to wrest control of the plane and make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, where the crew was held for 11 days.
It is the U.S. view that the accident was China's fault, as the F-8 was "maneuvering aggressively," coming within 10 feet of the aircraft on two passes and colliding on the third.
China has claimed since the beginning that the fault lay with the U.S. EP-3, a larger and slower plane – a story Rumsfeld refuted last week.
"For 12 days, one side of the story has been presented," he said. "You know, ultimately the truth comes out, and notwithstanding efforts to the contrary, the reality is that what actually happens in life ultimately is known. And now is the time to begin that process.
"Clearly, that this will be presented again on the 18th in the meeting, and it will be discussed widely. And I think it's important for the world to understand exactly what happened so that they can take that into account in their calibrations."
Verga and Sealock will also try to hammer out an agreement with the Chinese about how to handle such incidents in the future, according to the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld said Friday the goal would be for the United States and China to work out a pattern of behavior and protocol that reflects the system set up by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"Reconnaissance and surveillance is not new; it's normal. I don't know quite what the word is, but a pattern, a rhythm, develops. When the United States and the Soviet Union would conduct reconnaissance and surveillance flights, just as the United States and the People's Republic of China have, the pilots go out, they get on their track, they expect to be intercepted, they are frequently intercepted; there frequently is a period where there is some sort of hand signals or communications between them, and they go about their business," Rumsfeld said.
China wants the United States to stop conducting the flights, which have been a regular occurrence in the region for the last 40 years, according to defense officials.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley last week said the delegation would "hear what they have to say," but did not suggest that any changes were being considered.
Pentagon officials denied press reports Monday suggesting that the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was in position to offer military support to reconnaissance flights when they resume in the region, saying the planes are protected by international law which allows such overt surveillance missions as long as they are conducted in international airspace.
"We don't want to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We are in the right here," a Navy official told UPI on Monday.
Scrambling fighter jets to protect a reconnaissance plane would suggest the plane is doing something illegal or provocative for which it needs protection, he added.
Also coloring these negotiations is the coming sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan, an annual conundrum faced by the United States as it seeks to meet its obligation to help Taiwan defend itself without inciting China.
Taiwan wants four Kidd-class destroyers, Apache helicopters, submarines and a Patriot PAC-3 missile defense system. Most importantly, it wants four destroyers outfitted with the Aegis radar system, a sophisticated battle management and fire-control radar that can handle 100 simultaneous targets from the air, surface of the sea or underwater, while also managing offensive strikes.
If Taiwan is granted the right to buy the $1 billion destroyers, it would neutralize the 300 medium-range missiles China has deployed along its southern coast across from Taiwan.
China has warned the sale of Aegis destroyers would trigger an arms race in South Asia.
President Bush has given no indication yet of his decision, which is announced annually by the president at this time of year.
The delegation to China also includes: Rear Adm. Steven Smith, director, Strategy Planning and Policy, U.S. Pacific Command; Navy Capt. Phil Greene, director for China, Asia Pacific Division, Joint Staff; Navy Capt. John Orem, EP-3 requirements officer, Air Warfare Division, Navy Staff; Navy Cmdr. Raul "Pete" Pedrozo, assistant for Ocean Policy, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; James R. Keith, director, Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs, Department of State; and Jim Moriarty from the U.S. Embassy, Beijing.
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