"We intend to press for the release of the $80 million aircraft," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters. "It's ours."
The EP-3E made a forced landing on China's Hainan Island April 1 following a midair collision with a Chinese jet fighter. In the subsequent 11-day standoff and negotiations between Washington and Beijing for the release of the plane's 24 crew members, both sides agreed to send experts to discuss the incident. The talks will take place on Wednesday in Beijing with a delegation of Pentagon officials from Washington and Chinese Foreign Ministry officials.
Chinese officials have said they plan to use those talks to secure an agreement from the United States to stop surveillance flights off their coast. But President Bush Thursday made clear that these flights are an integral part of U.S. security.
A senior State Department official said the United States would not be willing to negotiate on this score.
"Five or six nations in Asia, including China, do recon flights," this official said. Observers presumed he meant that their planes carried out surveillance flights over each other's territory, not over or close to the United States.
He said that the U.S. delegation would likely raise questions about China's aggressive intercept tactics. He said they would ask, "Why do you have these aggressive tactics, sometimes flying within three feet of our aircraft?" he said.
The Beijing meeting will be followed by another, scheduled for April 23, between the United States and Chinese military in San Francisco, and coordinated through the Military Maritime Consultatative Agreement, a 1998 bilateral accord authorizing regular exchanges on basic military procedures for planes and ships.
In December, the Pentagon used that forum to complain about Chinese intercept tactics against U.S. surveillance flights. The State Department followed up in January with formal objections to these maneuvers.
According to government sources, crew members of the EP-3 flight said Chinese pilot Wang Wei essentially caused the accident by flying dangerously close to their plane off the coast of Hainan Island.
While the MMCA is handled primarily by the Chinese military -- widely seen as more hawkish and antagonistic than Beijing's civilian leaders -- the forum slated for Wednesday will be staffed primarily from China's foreign ministry. The U.S. side will consist of seven Pentagon officials and one State Department official.
A senior State Department official said they will be looking at how the Chinese will handle the meeting as an indication of their intentions on mending U.S.-Chinese ties. This official said he would look to see if they were "polemic" and "shrill."
Between April 6 and 8, U.S. and Chinese negotiators worked out the language by which the United States expressed it was "very sorry" for the plane entering Chinese airspace and the loss of the Chinese pilot Wang Wei's life, the official said. "The twenty hundredth draft Sunday had the very sorries in it, and that was close to the end," this official said.
After that, the U.S. embassy in Beijing made it clear that the United States could go no further in the negotiations. As a result, Chinese proposals for a compensation package for the loss of the pilot's life and their plane were scrapped from the final settlement. In the end, however, the Pentagon had to pay visa fees for the detained 24 crew members.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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