BEIJING — Two dozen crew members of a crippled American spy plane remained incommunicado in China this morning, as President Bush demanded that U.S. officials be given prompt access to them and that their airplane be returned without further "tampering."
As dawn broke over Hainan island, where the plane limped to a safe landing after a midair collision with a Chinese fighter jet Sunday morning, three U.S. officials were waiting to visit the crew. In Beijing this morning, U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher said that Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong had promised the diplomats access to the crew members tonight, China time.
The encounter between the two airplanes about 65 miles southeast of Hainan over the South China Sea brought the Bush administration to the cusp of its first foreign policy crisis. Tensions grew as the hours ticked by and Chinese officials prohibited the diplomats from visiting the crew.
But China's foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, said he hoped that an "adequate solution" to the dispute could be found.
The Bush administration took a deliberately low-key approach. The president issued firm but nonthreatening statements. His senior aides stayed in the shadows, offering no suggestion that the administration had moved to crisis footing.
"Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering," the president said. "The first step should be immediate access by our embassy personnel to our crew members. I am troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to our request for this access."
Holding out the possibility that the future of U.S.-Chinese relations under his administration was at stake, however, Bush added:
"Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice and with the expressed desire of both our countries for better relations."
One White House official said Bush was trying to make clear what he expected of China "but also give the Chinese time to get to the right decision."
"The Chinese political leadership knows we have a lot of important work to do together, without this burdening the relationship," the official added.
Seeming to make the same point, Tang said in Paris, where he was meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, that "the American side has explained time and again to our ambassador that this incident will not influence the general interests between China and the United States."
Three U.S. destroyers on their way back to the United States from the Persian Gulf were first ordered to remain near the site of the collision--in case they were needed to help search for the missing Chinese pilot--and later told to proceed.
The lack of diplomatic progress and heightened statements in Washington, after Bush was publicly silent Sunday, served notice that U.S.-Chinese ties had reached a potentially risky point early in the new administration. The situation represents the gravest test of U.S.-Chinese relations in two years, since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. That event sparked a wave of violent anti-American protests across China.
Despite Chinese anger over the collision, reaction on the streets remained muted, with no repeat of the rock-throwing and demonstrating two years ago.
Bush was under little early political pressure.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) urged a calm response, but he said the Chinese should return the crew and airplane without "real delay or complications."
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said China was mistaken if it thought that holding the Americans and their plane would influence the U.S. decision, expected later this month, on whether to permit Taiwan to purchase the advanced Aegis radar system for its navy.
One news agency reported from China that the air crew had been moved from the EP-3 reconnaissance plane to a guest house. The information was attributed to a Chinese sailor.
"It is inexplicable and unacceptable . . . that the air crew has been held incommunicado for over 32 hours," Prueher told reporters late Monday afternoon in Beijing.
He said repeated requests for access to the crew and aircraft were ignored, and "the Chinese have so far given us no explanation for holding the crew."
A deputy White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, said Chinese officials had told Prueher "that consular officials may have access late Tuesday night" Beijing time to the crew members. The U.S. military attache and his assistant in Beijing, along with a U.S. consular official from the southern city of Guangzhou, had traveled to the island.
U.S. officials were also concerned that the Chinese would start examining the hobbled EP-3, which is laden with some of the U.S. Navy's most advanced electronic eavesdropping equipment.