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U.S. takes firm tone, but hopes not to antagonize China

In a news conference Tuesday, President George W. Bush discussed the strain the detention of 24 U.S. Navy personnel might have on U.S.-China relations  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senior State Department officials said they hoped China heard the growing impatience in President Bush's remarks Tuesday about the continuing detention of 24 U.S. servicemen and -- women.

In particular, officials point to the president's implication that the longer the standoff continues, the greater the chance it will adversely affect the U.S.-China relationship.

"This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries," said President Bush. "To keep that from happening, our servicemen and -- women need to come home."

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At the same time it is trying to be firm, the Bush administration is also taking great pains not to antagonize China's leaders, one senior official said.

There is a "very clear effort to keep the president's rhetoric from becoming part of the problem," this official explained. We are "still not at a point where either side would describe (this incident) as having long-term implications."

Officials point to the fact that China finally allowed two U.S. diplomats to gain access to the 24 Americans, calling it "a step in the right direction."

Through comments made by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as private meetings between senior U.S. and Chinese officials, the Bush administration is trying to resolve this incident diplomatically.

Acting Secretary of State Richard Armitage on Tuesday called in China's ambassador to Washington, Yang Jiechi, for the second time this week to "reinforce the president's message," another State Department official said.

"This is intensive diplomacy," said one official. Powell would not speculate on what the administration might do in the future if the diplomatic route does not work.

Officials said this administration is "purposely trying not to point fingers" of blame -- and is "trying not to get into a public debate" with China because that is "not productive."

The administration wants to avoid a situation in which "both sides are digging in."

When asked why he thought the Chinese had taken so long to finally grant access to the crew, one senior official explained that while "three days seems like a long time to us ... remember they (the Chinese) don't have 'sit' rooms (situation rooms), they're not equipped to deal with emergencies like this."

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Navy Fact File: EP-3E ORION (ARIES II) Aircraft
U.S. Department of Defense
Government of China (in Chinese)
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Government Information Office, Republic of China

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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