In the South China Sea, the biggest and longest search effort ever staged by the Chinese navy continued unabated, sweeping hundreds of thousands of square miles of water for the Chinese pilot of the downed jet fighter while the Chinese defense minister comforted the pilot's wife.
The U.S.-China impasse being played out on a world stage continued to transfix the state media in China which has sustained a steady diet of anti-U.S. comments from Chinese officials, citizens at home and abroad and some sympathetic foreign governments like Iran and Cuba.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said the diplomats, during an earlier third hour-long meeting Sunday, gave the crew members sports news and confirmed that they had received e-mails from their families passed along earlier. Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, who leads the delegation, said the 21 men and three women were "in very high spirits … doing well and looking forward to going home."
However, there was no indication when the crew members would return home from the southern island of Hainan in the South China Sea where they have been detained since last Sunday. Their EP-3 surveillance plane was forced to make an emergency landing after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet.
Sealock said Sunday the U.S. is asking for twice-daily visits with the U.S. air crew.
"With regard to future access, we are still working hard for unfettered daily access to the crew and we asked to see them twice a day," he told reporters in Haikou, the island's southern provincial capital. "I trust that we will continue to have this access on a daily basis."
"It was very heartening to see them in very high spirits in very good health and good condition," he said.
Washington and Beijing continued to negotiate over the Chinese demand for an apology from the United States. So far both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have repeated their expressions of regret and their concern for missing Chinese fighter pilot Wang Wei.
But Xinhua, the state news agency, published comments of Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian, who used the occasion of his visit with the pilot's wife Saturday to repeat that, "It's impermissible for them to want to shirk responsibility." He said "the People's Liberation Army does not agree to it; the Chinese people don't agree to it. The people of the world also won't agree to it."
Xinhua also published the text of a letter from China's top foreign policy official to Powell calling U.S. statements "unacceptable to the Chinese side, and the Chinese people have found it unsatisfactory."
Deputy Premier Qian Qichen wrote: "It is essential for the U.S. side to face up to the facts squarely, adopt a positive and practical approach, and apologize to the Chinese people." He said an apology was of the "utmost importance."
Xinhua earlier reported that the wife of the Chinese fighter pilot had sent a letter to Bush, calling on him to apologize for the incident. Ruan Guoqin wrote, "I cannot figure out why you sent the U.S. crew members to spy along China's coast from such a great distance, and why they rammed my husband's plane." Defense Minister Chi said he thought the letter was "well written."
On Saturday the news service, which showcases on its Web site stories on more than 100 aspects of the incident published during the past week under a banner, "Denounce U.S. Hegemonist Act," published an analysis of the collision of the two aircraft by an aeronautics expert who said a sudden left turn by the propeller-driven four-engine American plane surprised the pilot of the jet flying parallel a few feet away. The planes hit each other several times, he said, as the rotating props sawed through the jet and the U.S. plane's nosecone smashed its tail section.
The Beijing expert, Chen Fushan, said, "It was clear the U.S. plane violated the flight rules."
The Chinese navy search, according to Chinese officials, is utilizing 800 vessels and is the largest in scale in terms of the number of people engaged, the area being searched and the length of time it has been under way.
The EP-3, which carries ultra-sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, was flying off the Chinese coast, eavesdropping on China's communications in a pattern intensified during the final months of the Clinton administration. Both its surveillance flights and the close-quarters attention from Chinese fighter planes had become a routine occurrence when suddenly the collision triggered a high profile international incident.
Heavily damaged, the U.S. Navy spy plane landed at a Chinese military base on Hainan. The crew members reportedly said in their first visit with an American official that they did have time to destroy much if not all of the most sensitive data and hardware on board before Chinese troops boarded the aircraft on the ground.
Though China blames the United States for the collision, Washington says it was the F-8 that hit the U.S. aircraft in an accident while flying over international waters.
"China's position is clear," a ministry spokeswoman said. "The United States must admit full responsibility and apologize to the Chinese people, and it must take sincere and effective measures to prevent a similar incident from happening again."
Xinhua, in its commentary, said: "It is clear that the U.S. plane broke flight rules and made dangerous movements, causing the crash of the Chinese jet and the missing of the Chinese pilot, and violated international and Chinese laws.
"The acts of the U.S. plane violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and are against the consensus reached between China and the United States in May last year on avoiding military risks in sea areas."
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