Sources: U.S. considering joint investigation of plane collision
Bush says 'Chinese have got to act' to end standoff
WASHINGTON -- The United States is discussing a joint investigation of the weekend collision between a Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter, administration sources tell CNN. One U.S. official said China views agreement on this point as critical before it would consider releasing the crew.
Officials also tell CNN they have received indications, though one source said not an outright guarantee, that U.S. diplomats will be allowed to visit Friday with the 24 crew members of the US surveillance plane.
Administration officials used terms like "guarded optimism" and "the beginnings of progress" to describe the diplomatic conversations under way, but acknowledged the true test would come Friday.
"We're not shouting at each other any more," is how one official described the diplomatic discussions in Washington and Beijing. "Shouting is an exaggeration, but at first these were more speeches than conversations. Now we are talking."
Earlier Thursday, A State Department source expressed optimism that progress was being made in talks with the Chinese, telling CNN that Ambassador Yang Jiechi delivered a "positive response" to a letter from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
President Bush offered his prayers and regrets for the loss of the Chinese pilot who was flying a jet fighter that collided with a Navy surveillance plane on Sunday.
Bush's comments, his first since Tuesday, marked the first time the president has personally expressed regret, but he appeared to stop short of the apology Beijing says is warranted.
"I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret one of their airplanes is lost, and our prayers go out to the pilot, his family," Bush told a conference of newspaper editors in Washington. "Our prayers are also with our own service men and women, and they need to come home."
Bush said all diplomatic efforts are being made to resolve the stalemate.
"My mission is to bring the people home," Bush added. "And as to whether or not we'll have good relations, my intention is to make sure we do have good relations. But the Chinese have got to act. And I hope they do so quickly."
"The message to the Chinese is that we should not let this incident destabilize our relations."
Earlier Thursday, a Chinese spokesman in Beijing said an expression of regret offered by Powell was a "a step in the right direction," but not enough to end the crisis over the U.S. plane and crew, detained in China.
Sun Yuxi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, also said the 24 members of the crew had been questioned by Chinese authorities.
The standoff between the United States and China is in its fifth day. It started Sunday when a Navy EP-3 collided with a Chinese fighter jet in international air space and then made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan, where it and the crew remain. The Chinese F-8 fighter crashed into the South China Sea and the pilot, Wang Wei, is presumed dead, although a search continues.
China, U.S. 'heavily engaged' in talks
Bush's comments were the furthest the United States has gone in expressing sympathy or regrets for the incident, which U.S. officials have maintained was an accident.
The White House appeared to take comfort in the fact that both sides were talking.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer described the two countries as "heavily engaged" in "sensitive" talks.
Fleischer said Jiechi was at the U.S. State Department on Thursday for another meeting with Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage.
U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher also delivered a letter overnight from Powell to the assistant foreign minister in China, appealing for the release of the crew.
Fleischer declined to say what the administration might do next to resolve the stalemate. "The president is taking events one step at a time," he said.
In what could be another noteworthy development, China's state media Thursday began eulogizing the lost Chinese pilot as a national hero. Some analysts said the indication that the pilot had died and his death was being honored could signal an effort to close the matter.
While Bush offered sympathetic comments, other officials and lawmakers have said Wang was an aggressive pilot and criticized China's intercept policy.
In an interview with CNN, former Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Clinton administration had complained to China about the aggressive tactics of its fighters.
"A very strong protest was launched back in January, with these fighter aircraft coming within a matter of feet of the reconnaissance aircraft and thereby posing a danger to all concerned," Cohen said. "That apparently is what happened here."
Chinese president seeks apology
Chinese President Jiang Zemin arrived in Santiago, Chile, Thursday to kick off a two-week tour of Latin America. He still appeared to insist on an apology.
"I have visited many countries and I see it as very normal that when people clash (bump in to each other), it is normal that these people apologize," Jiang said. "Now, we see that these planes come in to our country and they don't want to ask for forgiveness. Is that normal?"
He also said the situation needed to be handled carefully.
"I want to emphasize that both of our countries should handle this affair with a maximum care for their bilateral relations," Jiang said.
Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats waited in a hotel on Hainan without word when they will get to see the U.S. crew again.
"If the U.S. side takes a cooperative approach, we will consider another visit," Sun said.
He called the crew of the plane "law-breakers" and said the 21 men and three women had been questioned. "They have caused this air collision incident. It is fully natural for competent authorities in China to question them," Sun said.
White House stays away from word 'interrogation'
Fleischer appeared to want to diminish the significance of the Chinese questioning, refusing to call it an interrogation. "The Chinese have said from the beginning of this accident that they wanted to investigate the causes of it themselves, that they wanted to interview the crew or to question the crew," he said. "We do know from the meeting that was held with the crew that they have been treated well. And that's where that matter stands."
Fleischer said the idea of a special envoy to China was "not under active consideration," adding that he knew of no private citizens who been tapped to act as go-betweens in the matter.
Sun suggested U.S. diplomats would not be allowed to see the crew again until America apologizes, though he wouldn't say whether an apology was a precondition for talks.
In an interview with CNN, one analyst underscored the importance of apologies to the Chinese.
"We Americans tend to be relatively casual and easy about offering apologies, even such catch phrases as 'sorry about that,' " said Arnold Kanter, with the Forum for International Policy. "In the Chinese context, apologies are deadly serious. They are about winning and losing, about dignity, about humiliation, about who's right and who's wrong. The stakes are rally much more significant."
Pentagon: Chinese pilot flying under EP-3
More details emerged about the collision itself.
Pentagon officials said after assessing the damage to the U.S. plane, the Chinese pilot was flying directly under the EP-3. In an interview Wednesday with CNN's Larry King Live, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, described the encounter as an "aggressive game of aerial chicken" by the Chinese pilot.
The Chinese have said that the collision occurred when the U.S. plane made an abrupt turn.
While a senior Pentagon official has said that the crew destroyed sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment on board the plane, analysts said the Chinese could still learn about U.S. surveillance techniques from the plane itself.
"That plane contains the crown jewels of electronic and communications intelligence collection," said retired Marine Col. Ed Badolato, a cryptology specialist. "They really want to take a look at this equipment to find out what we gather and how we gather it, and how we analyze and what we do on that aircraft."
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