WASHINGTON (AP) As the standoff over the detained crew of a downed American spy plane entered its second week, top Bush administration officials said yesterday a quick resolution was crucial to avoid further straining U.S.-China relations.

Paul Wong
China is enlisting hundreds of fishing boats such as these in its search for missing fighter pilot Wang Wei.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Continued delay in sending the 24 Americans homes could have repercussions on Capitol Hill, said members of Congress, citing a possible trade fight later this year and an upcoming decision on U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan.

The administration refused again to apologize for the collision between a Chinese fighter jet and the U.S. plane, which was forced to make an emergency landing on an island in southern China. The Chinese jet and its pilot are missing. Over the weekend, the Chinese military took a tough stance on who was to blame.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States was “sorry” about the pilot”s fate as he used a word the administration has generally avoided. But he emphasized the United States should not and will not apologize for the collision of the planes.

Both Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and the president”s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said an extended standoff threatened to make it harder to repair relations between the two countries.

“I don”t want to put a timetable on it, every day that goes by without having it resolved raises the risks to the long-term relationship,” Cheney said on NBC”s “Meet the Press.” Administration officials were careful to avoid spelling out specific consequences of further delay.

Shifting from a diplomatic to personal level, the White House said the president was answering the missing pilot”s distraught wife, who had written Bush and accused his administration of being “too cowardly” to offer an apology.

“The purpose of the letter is to respond in a humanitarian way, in an American way, to a widow who is grieving,” Powell said on “Fox News Sunday. “Whatever you think about the politics of it, she”s lost her husband.”

“We have expressed regrets, we”ve expressed our sorrow, and we are sorry that a life was lost,” Powell said, referring to the missing pilot.

In comparison, he offered this explanation for the U.S. position on an apology to Beijing for the collision: “The question of apology is something quite different, because then we are being asked to accept responsibility. And that we have not done, can”t do, and therefore won”t apologize for that.”

Cheney rejected the description of the crew as “hostages” by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). Cheney said the United States has access to them and they were being treated well.

But Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said, “We”re getting precariously close to that.”

Bush spent the weekend at Camp David, conferring with aides, including Rice and senior adviser Karen Hughes. In China, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher had two meetings Sunday with Chinese officials and reported back to State Department officials.

U.S. officials were allowed to meet with eight members of the crew Saturday, not all 24 members, Rice said, noting the U.S. had picked the crew members so there were no concerns about those they did not see. “We have clearly said to the Chinese that we want access to our people and we want unfettered access to our people,” she said on CNN”s “Late Edition.”

“I think they”re pawns being used by the Chinese to try to gain some goals that they”re not going to achieve,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). The Chinese have been concerned about issues such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and a proposed anti-missile shield.

Lawmakers frustrated that the impasse was dragging on said it could lead to a bitter fight later this year if Congress is asked to extend trade benefits to Beijing possible U.S. opposition to China”s bid to stage the Olympics in 2008 and an arms package Bush is now considering for Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

“There are a lot of very significant things which if China would … step up and solve this thing now, will more likely occur,” said GOP Sen. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Taiwan is seeking an arms package that includes four destroyers equipped with the Navy”s most advanced anti-missile radar system.

“The Taiwan arms sale stands alone and apart,” Powell said on CBS. “But of course it”s affecting the environment that we will be facing when we take the sale up on Capitol Hill if there is a perception that China is not acting in a responsible and reasonable manner.”

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