BEIJING — U.S. diplomats met late Tuesday with crew members of an American spy plane for the first time since the aircraft landed in China two days earlier, but there was no indication that the meeting would lead to their release or an end to a diplomatic standoff between Washington and Beijing.
The 24 crew members of the Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane appeared to be in good condition when they met with two diplomats for 40 minutes on Hainan island off southern China.
But U.S. officials in Washington said the Chinese had begun an intense examination of the plane, despite American demands that they leave the plane untouched. And the Chinese insisted that the United States apologize for the spy flight, a move American officials have said they will not make.
President Bush slightly sharpened his tone about the incident, warning Tuesday that it had "the potential to undermine our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries."
"It is time for our servicemen and women to return home. It is time for the Chinese government to return our plane," Bush said in brief remarks at the White House.
The EP-3, on patrol about 65 miles southeast of Hainan, was damaged Sunday when it collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet. The Chinese aircraft went down, and the pilot was still missing. The U.S. plane was forced to land on Hainan.
U.S. authorities say the collision was accidental. A senior Bush administration official said it was clear after the meeting with the crew that the plane was "in extremis" when it landed. It had lost the use of one propeller, a second propeller and the nose were damaged, and the pilot had no indication of airspeed.
"If anything qualifies as an emergency landing, this certainly does," the official said.
U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph W. Prueher said on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Tuesday night that the EP-3 was too damaged to be flyable.
Beijing, meanwhile, showed no sign of backing off, maintaining that the Navy plane caused the accident and had violated China's sovereign airspace.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin said there was "sufficient evidence" to show that the U.S. was at fault, and he called on America to stop sending surveillance missions so close to his nation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said the U.S. "should face the facts squarely, shoulder responsibility and apologize to the Chinese side."
But the senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity, said "there's nothing to apologize for."
In San Diego, acting Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Pirie Jr. said the U.S. will not be intimidated by the incident into discontinuing intelligence-gathering flights. He also indicated that no apology is necessary.
"This airplane was clearly in international airspace when this occurred," Pirie told reporters aboard the 3rd Fleet command ship Coronado. "We are going to continue to establish freedom of navigation everywhere we are authorized to do it by international law."
Chinese officials said they reserved the right to conduct their own investigation of the collision, including an inspection of the U.S. craft.
On Tuesday, Beijing released more details of its version of what happened.
At 8:36 a.m. Sunday, China dispatched two F-8 fighter jets to shadow the EP-3, which had been detected off Hainan. The two fighters flew parallel to the EP-3, about 400 yards to one side, Zhu said. Half an hour later, at 9:07, the EP-3 suddenly "veered at a wide angle toward the Chinese planes" and rammed its nose and left wing into the tail of one of the fighters, which lost control, plummeting to the ocean below, Zhu said. Its pilot, Wang Wei, ejected out of his plane but has not yet been found.
The second F-8 returned to its base safely at 9:23, and the EP-3 limped into the Lingshui military air base on Hainan 10 minutes later.
China Says No Mayday Was Issued
Zhu said there was no record that the EP-3 had issued a mayday call, which China said is necessary before a disabled plane can land in a foreign country.
But U.S. defense officials said the aircraft had transmitted the international distress signal before arriving on Hainan, thus doing all that is required under international rules before a plane makes an emergency landing at the nearest runway.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, asked about the claim by the Chinese that they have a right to investigate the incident, said he did not "know what there is to investigate. Our plane was flying in international airspace. Their planes were in international airspace. An accident occurred."
Powell said the Americans should be released at once. "That crew is still in detention," he told reporters on a flight from Key West, Fla., to Washington. "They are being held incommunicado under circumstances that I don't find acceptable."
Bush, in his remarks, said he wanted to give China time to respond to the weekend episode, to prevent the stalemate from deteriorating into a full-fledged crisis. But he said such a grace period was running out.