Pentagon official: U.S. plane on autopilot at time of collision
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While China on Monday renewed its call for an apology from the United States for the collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. surveillance plane, a senior Pentagon official tells CNN the U.S. Navy EP-3 plane was on "autopilot" at the time of the collision.
The revelation would seem to contradict the account of a Chinese pilot who said last week that the U.S. plane "suddenly swerved at a wide angle" and hit one of the two fighters, although it's possible the EP-3 might have begun a banking maneuver to correct its course while under the automatic control.
The Pentagon official says it's still unclear whether the plane was turning or flying straight and level. In any event, the Pentagon insists it is the responsibility of the escort planes to stay clear of the plane they are intercepting.
In addition, Pentagon sources say U.S. officials have learned from the detained crew that the Chinese jets were not "flying straight and level" but were performing various dangerous maneuvers.
Pentagon officials would not specify what that maneuvers were.
Last Thursday, the surviving Chinese Pilot Zhao Yu told a Chinese state TV interviewer that the accident was "directly caused by the collision of the U.S. plane veering at a wide angle toward our plane, making it impossible for our plane to avoid it."
He said the U.S. plane "severely violated flying rules."
Pentagon officials are continuing to withhold comment until they can fully debrief the crew, which has now spent eight days on the Chinese island of Hainan.
With the standoff over the detained Navy spy plane and crew in its second week, China is holding firm to its call for a U.S. apology. One senior Chinese official called the U.S. response in the ongoing standoff "unacceptable."
"Where is the responsibility? I think it's very clear," said Zhu Bangzao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official traveling Monday with President Jiang Zemin in Argentina. "The pronouncements of the United States are unacceptable to the Chinese people." But President George W. Bush warned that U.S.-China relations could be harmed by a continued standoff over the U.S. plane and its 24-member crew.
'All of us around this table understand diplomacy takes time," he said at the start of his Cabinet meeting. "But there is a point -- the longer it goes -- there's a point at which our relations with China could become damaged."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said later that any damage that has already occurred was "reversible," including the cancellation of a trip to China by a congressional delegation.
"The president made very clear that it is time for our troops to come home so that our relationship is not damaged," he said.
But diplomats who have experience with China are urging patience.
"The Chinese are negotiating just as they always do when they hold all of the cards," said former U.S. ambassador to China James Sasser. "They're going very slowly, very painstakingly, and drawing it out. Now we're really negotiating over words and a question of semantics."
The Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, ejected from his plane after the collision, and has not been found. The Chinese have held the U.S. crew members since their emergency landing on Hainan Island, calling for an apology from the United States.
Chinese officials said Monday that continued U.S. reconnaissance missions over Hainan Island had an adverse effect on the lives of the island's residents. They said that such flights must stop -- adding, however, that U.S. tourists are welcome on the island.
But another former ambassador to China says it would be a disaster for the United States to apologize for flights it has been making for 50 years.
"If you apologize, you're accepting responsibility which gives the Chinese legal leverage to try to make us back off from the flights," said former U.S. ambassador Winston Lord. "It gives them leverage, financially, making us pay for any damages. It makes a weak signal from the new administration to the Chinese leadership which will come back to haunt us."
Possible sanctions and risks
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered Monday to help resolve the standoff. In New York, Annan said the two Security Council powers seemed to be making progress, adding that he hopes "direct discussions" will lead to results.
"If my good offices are needed, I'm always available," he told CNN's Richard Roth.
Joseph Prueher, the current U.S. Ambassador to China, said that negotiations aimed at the release of the Navy crew were ongoing, despite the apparent inflexibility of the two positions.
"We are in dialogue with our counterparts and we hope we're moving a little closer to a solution," he said.
But China's critics in Congress and the Bush administration are pondering possible ways to punish China, including revoking China's favorable trade status with the United States, canceling a planned Bush visit to Beijing in the fall and opposing China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
President Bush must also decide later this month what new weapons to sell Taiwan. Before the standoff, several top aides were advocating the sale of destroyers with the state-of-the-art Aegis radar systems.
"The Chinese view of the United States is quite suspicious," warns Bates Gill of the Brookings Institute. "They are not certain of what our strategic intention of them may be and any act that appears to be bullying -- in their terms, hegemonic, unilateralist -- is bound to stir up passions on their nationalist part of the public."
Evidence spy plane being stripped
Pentagon officials on Monday pointed to a new photograph as evidence the Chinese are stripping the eavesdropping aircraft.
The plane and its crew have been detained since making an emergency landing on Hainan Island following a collision with a Chinese fight jet eight days ago.
An aerial photo, taken by a U.S. commercial satellite company Monday morning China time, shows seven trucks parked next the crippled U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane at Lingshui airstrip, according to Pentagon officials who were shown the photo by CNN.
Some in the Pentagon say the photograph buttresses the U.S. claim that the Chinese are removing sensitive hi-tech equipment from the aircraft.
Last week Pentagon sources said that U.S. intelligence reports indicated the Chinese were stripping the plane of equipment, something the Chinese have refused to confirm or deny.
The one-meter-resolution, color satellite image was collected at 9:58 a.m. local time on April 9, 2001 (10:58 p.m. EDT on April 8, 2001) by Space Imaging's IKONOS satellite.
Diplomats meet with crew
U.S. diplomats on Monday met for a fourth time with the crew since the incident. Unlike the third meeting Saturday, when only eight crew members were seen, all 24 were present at the latest 40-minute meeting.
Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy's military attache, said all the crew were in good health and "high spirits" and described their accommodations as "a hotel environment."
"They are well taken care of," Sealock said after returning to his hotel from the meeting.
Before Monday's meeting, Sealock said the diplomats wanted daily "unfettered access" to the crew, but he made no reference to those comments after the meeting.
Boucher, however, said later from Washington that the diplomats were still pushing for "continued and unfettered access," although, he said, the next meeting "is not yet set."
CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre and Correspondents Lisa Rose Weaver and Major Garrett contributed to this report.
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