U.S. sends mission to recover plane, crew
HONG KONG, China -- U.S. diplomats have landed on China's Hainan Island to try to negotiate the return of a downed spy plane and its 24 crew members.
A spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command told CNN the three-person team was expected to meet local Chinese government officials of the island, off China's south coast, after landing around midday local time (0500 GMT).
Naval Attache Bradley Kaplan and Defense Attache Neal Sealock boarded a mini-van at Haikou airport on the north end of the island for the two- to three-hour trip to the Lingshui military airport near the southern city of Sanya, a Reuters photographer said.
They were due to meet a third diplomat -- understood to be a U.S. consul general -- who arrived on Hainan Island earlier Monday.
The U.S. aircraft made an emergency landing Sunday in China after it collided in mid-air with a Chinese fighter jet early on Sunday morning, the Pentagon said. China is blaming the U.S. for the collision, which the U.S. says happened over international waters.
The crew is thought to be safe and unharmed, although the Chinese jet ditched into the South China Sea and its pilot remains missing, according to Beijing.
The consular mission was sent to Hainan Island with the task of negotiating the return of the crew and its aircraft.
"They were supposed to be there right about now, but we have not heard from them yet," said the spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu, Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly.
"Their first task is to get down there and make contact with the crew and the craft, and then negotiate the safe return of both," Kelly said.
He added that no contact has been made with the crew since it landed at an air base at Lingshui, on the southeast tip of Hainan Island. It is not known whether the crew has remained on board the high-tech Navy EP-3 Aries II.
Kelly says under international guidelines, the aircraft -- which operates out of Japan -- is considered sovereign U.S. territory and China "cannot seize, board or inspect the aircraft without the permission of the U.S. government".
Most of the next of kin of the crew have been notified, and Kelly said it might soon be possible to release some of the names of the crew.
The spokesman also confirmed that there is classified equipment on board the plane, which is used to fly missions along the edge of Chinese airspace monitoring electronic activity inside China.
He said it was a regular mission by one of about 24 such aircraft in service in the U.S. Navy, and intercepts by Chinese aircraft were also common. However, the U.S. government recently protested that Chinese pilots had become "less professional" in their intercepts.
"I must tell you though that the intercepts by Chinese fighters over the past couple months have become more aggressive to the point we felt they were endangering the safety of Chinese and American aircraft," said Adm. Dennis C. Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command told a press conference shortly after the incident.
"And we launched a protest at the working level. This is not a big deal, but we went to the Chinese and said, 'Your aircraft are not intercepting in a professional manner. There is a safety issue here.' So, this was a pattern of what we considered to be increasingly unsafe behavior."
It remains unclear exactly how the collision occurred. The U.S. officially considers it an accident, but China has blamed the U.S. aircraft's pilot.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzo said two Chinese military planes were following the U.S. plane to monitor it.
The Chinese planes "were flying normally" about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of the Chinese island of Hainan when "the U.S. plane suddenly turned toward the Chinese plane," he said, in a statement.
"The head and the left wing of the U.S. plane bumped into one of the Chinese planes, causing it to crash."
The Pentagon has said China's response to the incident is "unsatisfactory".
Meanwhile, Japan has urged both the United States and China to resolve quickly their differences over the collision, saying the Sino-U.S. relationship was crucial to Asia.
"Good relations between the United States and China are important to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference.
"Our government hopes that the safety of the crew will be ensured and the issue will be resolved smoothly and promptly," Fukuda said.
U.S. lawmakers warned the incident could strain diplomatic relations if not resolved quickly.
"We are at a very important and delicate point in our relationship with the People's Republic of China and how this is handled will go a long way as to the future of that relationship," U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel said in an interview with CNN.
Earlier, aviation expert Jim Eckes, managing director of Indoswiss Aviation, dismissed China's claim that the incident was the fault of U.S. pilots.
"Aviation protocol demands that the quicker plane take steps to avoid the larger, slower aircraft, which in this case was the EP-3 belonging to the U.S.," said Eckes.
The downed U.S. surveillance aircraft represents one of the most technologically advanced aircraft owned by the military, according to Eckes.
"This is a very, very sensitive piece of equipment and one the U.S. will not want sitting in Chinese territory," he told CNN.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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