U.S., China deal falters over standoff letter
U.S. officials in Washington told CNN on Monday a fourth letter was being drafted and would soon be sent to Chinese officials. The movement of the letters, one official said, showed continued progress toward a resolution.
Still, several officials of the Bush administration said they could not be sure if the nine-day standoff would end soon or if the precise language sought by the Chinese could be formulated.
"We're all taking this one day at a time and searching for a way out," one official said.
The U.S. and China have been at loggerheads over how to resolve the confrontation that began on April 1, when the U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet collided about 100km off the coast of Hainan Island, in the South China Sea.
The Chinese jet crashed into the sea and its pilot has not been found, while the U.S. plane limped to a nearby military airfield on Hainan Island, where its crew have since been held with only limited access to U.S. diplomats.
China blames the U.S. for the collision, and has demanded an apology. The U.S. says the collision was an accident, and says an apology will not be forthcoming although it has offered its "regret" at the loss of the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei.
A senior Pentagon official has revealed to CNN the U.S. Navy EP-3E 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-3E might have begun a banking maneuver to correct its course while under the automatic control.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powellsaid at the weekend he was "sorry" for the loss of Wang, but did not accept any U.S. responsibility for the incident.
'Condolence' letter delivered
The U.S. officials said President Bush's letter of regret and condolence to the wife of the Chinese fighter pilot missing and presumed dead has been delivered.
U.S. officials said they hoped the gesture would undercut some of the rhetoric from Chinese officials about the stance of the U.S government.
One senior Chinese official Monday called the U.S. response in the ongoing spy standoff "unacceptable."
"Where is the responsibility? I think it's very clear," said Zhu Bangzao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official traveling with President Jiang Zemin in Argentina. "The pronouncements of the United States are unacceptable to the Chinese people."
Some U.S. officials said in many respects the Bush administration has gone as far as it intends to go in its expressions of regret and that the stalemate must end soon or lasting damage to the U.S.-China relationship could be inevitable.
Bush signaled as much earlier in the day when he said, "every day that goes by increases the potential that our relations with China could be damaged and our hope is that this matter gets resolved quickly."
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.
The Pentagon official says it's still unclear whether the U.S. 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.
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.
Officials would not specify what that maneuvers were.
On 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.
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 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.
Diplomats urge patience
Meanwhile, 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."
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.
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 U.S. 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.
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