China's military takes hard line
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- China's military on Sunday took a hard line in the impasse over a grounded U.S. spy plane as diplomats sought regular visits with the detained crew.
A week after the U.S. electronic surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter, comments in China's state-controlled media appeared to contradict official U.S. optimism.
"The Chinese armed forces and people will not accept it if the U.S. government attempts to evade its responsibility," Defense Minister Chi Haotian said as he met with the wife of a Chinese pilot missing since last week's incident.
Chinese authorities have held 24 fliers from the U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries since their surveillance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter shadowing it over the South China Sea collided last Sunday morning (Saturday night Washington time). The pilot of the Chinese jet was still missing Sunday.
China has said it wants the United States to apologize for the incident, which it blamed on the U.S. fliers, and for the American plane's landing on China's Hainan Island without permission.
Top U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, have expressed regret over the loss of the Chinese fighter and its pilot, Wang Wei. But they say no apology is needed.
"The president has made it clear we regret the loss of the Chinese pilot as a result of this accident," Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "The notion that we would apologize for being in international airspace, for example, is not something we can accept."
Wang's wife, Ruan Guoqin, called Bush's approach to the crisis "cowardly" in a letter delivered to the president Saturday. In an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Bush was working on a response, despite earlier reports that no immediate response would be issued.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush's letter was a personal one, not a formal diplomatic move.
The comments from China's defense minister, and others from the military's news organ, the Liberation Army Daily, contrasted sharply with assurances by civilian leaders in Beijing and Washington that the standoff could be resolved soon.
Observers have two different theories about Sunday's military statements: Either the army is pressing for a harder line, or the government is letting the military rattle its saber and blow off steam before a deal is made.
"As in any country, China's Foreign Ministry tends to want to resolve this kind of issue peacefully, but other parts of the government may hold different views," political analyst Wang Xiaodong said.
The military newspaper said Sunday that Beijing is entitled to "thoroughly investigate" the detained air crew and the aircraft, which U.S. officials say is sovereign territory. The paper also demanded that the United States end its routine surveillance flights off China's coast.
"This introduces another set of actors in Chinese politics," said Richard Baum, a China scholar from the University of California at Berkeley. "No one can run China without the support of the army."
Chinese President Jiang Zemin was in Argentina on Sunday, part of a tour of Latin America, and has made no public comment on the matter since Thursday. But Western observers say China's leadership is now more collaborative than it was under previous leaders such as Mao Tse-tung or Deng Xiaoping.
"China was opaque then as it is now, but there was a single leader who made all the decisions -- or at least the important ones," Baum said. "Now we do have a kind of corporate management board, and the process is so opaque that we can't see how the decisions are made."
Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats said they wanted to see the detained crew on a regular basis.
Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. defense attache in China, said members of the detained flight crew -- which includes three women -- were in good shape and were given e-mail messages from home Sunday.
"They're all looking well. They are all looking forward to going home," Sealock said. He said Powell and U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher were continuing efforts to have the crew released.
Sealock and other U.S. diplomats have met three times with the crew of the damaged aircraft, which has been sitting at a Chinese air base on the island of Hainan since April 1. Sealock met with eight members of the crew early Sunday (late Saturday in Washington).
"We are working hard toward unfettered daily access to the crew, and we'd like to see them twice a day," he said. He did not explain what "unfettered access" would include.
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon and Correspondent Lisa Rose Weaver contributed to this report.
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