WASHINGTON (AP) In a tense standoff with China, President Bush demanded the prompt return of 24 U.S. spy plane crew members yesterday and the release of their crippled plane “without further damaging or tampering.” China said there would be no access until today at the earliest.

Paul Wong
About 100 people demonstrate outside the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong yesterday, blaming the U. S. for the collision between U.S. and Chinese military planes.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Bush, reading a sober statement at the White House, said, “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.”

The emergency landing of the turbo-prop EP-3 surveillance plane on the Chinese island of Hainan after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet early Sunday brought a new chill to already frosty U.S.-Chinese relations just as Bush was nearing a decision on an arms-sale package for Taiwan that Beijing has opposed.

U.S. officials assumed the plane had been boarded by the Chinese military after its emergency landing on the island in the South China Sea, but they had no concrete information on the extent to which the plane, laden with high-tech surveillance equipment, might have been searched.

The United States considers the aircraft to be sovereign U.S. territory and not subject to search or seizure.

China blamed the collision on the American pilot, saying the U.S. plane veered into one of its F-8 fighters.

Navy spy planes fly routinely off China”s southeastern coast to monitor military activity, especially any that might threaten Taiwan, and they are often shadowed in turn by Chinese fighter planes.

As tensions grew yesterday, the United States was keeping three Navy destroyers in the vicinity of Hainan island instead of having them continue their journey home from the Persian Gulf. The United States sent three diplomats to the island in hopes of meeting with the crew.

“Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering,” Bush said on the White House lawn.

Later, during a picture-taking session in the Oval Office with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Bush sidestepped questions on whether the crew members were viewed as hostages or whether he believed the accident to be a provocation by China.

“My reaction is that the Chinese must promptly allow us to have contact with the 24 airmen and women that are there and return our plane to us without any further tampering,” said Bush, facing the most difficult foreign situation of his young presidency.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said, “We see this as an accident, as a midair accident. That”s what we know.”

As to the condition of the crew members, Boucher said, “What we”ve been told is that they”re safe and that they”re well. And we appreciate that, but we need to speak to them directly for us to find anything more out about the conditions and the situation.”

Late yesterday, a spokesman in Honolulu at the U.S. Pacific Command headquarters, Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly, said that names and hometowns of crew members won”t be released until contact has been made with the crew. Of those being held, 22 are Navy, one Air Force and one Marine. Despite Bush”s demand for prompt access, China indicated there would be none before tonight, China time, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. That would be this morning in Washington.

“We find it very troubling about the lack of speed. We continue to press for prompt access,” McClellan said.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said the spy plane”s left engine and left wing were damaged. The plane is from an electronic reconnaissance squadron whose home base is Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state.

The Chinese fighter that collided with the American plane crashed into the sea and the pilot was missing. The other fighter returned safely. The United States offered to help China in locating its missing aircraft and pilot, but the offer drew no response from Beijing.

The episode created a serious diplomatic situation for both nations.

Anti-American sentiment in China still remains high two years after the mistaken bombing by an American warplane of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Chinese officials have also been leery of Bush”s intentions after statements by administration officials suggesting he may take a harder line toward China than did former President Clinton.

China also opposes Bush”s advocacy of a missile-defense system and has adamantly opposed Taiwan”s request to the United States for the sale of four destroyers equipped with the Navy”s most advanced anti-missile radar system.

Bush was nearing a final decision on the sale of the destroyers and other military hardware to Taiwan and was expected to announce his decision within a few weeks.

Bush decided not to telephone Chinese President Jiang Zemin, not wanting to suggest the White House was treating the situation as a crisis.

While taking the situation seriously, the Bush administration is keeping in mind that China is usually slow to respond to international developments and, in this case, has its own political problems in dealing with a U.S. spy plane off its coast colliding with a Chinese craft, officials said.

In related developments: Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was “hard to imagine” that the larger, relatively slow-moving turboprop-driven U.S. plane had initiated the collision. As to access to the crew, “under international law, that should have happened long ago,” Shelton told a group of newspaper editors.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., urged calm after talking about the situation with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. “To lower the temperature is the right way to proceed. This is a delicate matter now. We need to make sure that we deal with it quickly and in an appropriate way,”

Lott said.Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China, said in Beijing that it was “inexplicable and unacceptable and of grave concern to the most senior leaders in the United States government that the air crew has been held incommunicado for over 32 hours. The Chinese so far have given us no explanation for holding this crew.”

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said the situation “will only be defused by China”s immediate release” of the crew and equipment. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said the Chinese “always test a new president and I”m glad to see that the president is taking a tough stand.”

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