CHINA, U.S. agree on return of spy plane

Thursday, May 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ China said Thursday that the United States can take back its stranded U.S. Navy spy plane _ in pieces.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the two sides were discussing details and dates for the return of the plane, stranded at an air base on the southern island of Hainan since a collision April 1 with a Chinese fighter jet. Zhu Bangzao said talks included whether the pieces of the $80 million aircraft would be sent home by cargo plane or ship.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it couldn't confirm that Washington had agreed to dismantle the aircraft. It said the two sides were still discussing the fate of the EP-3E Aries II.

``We don't want to speculate about possible arrangements for return of the aircraft,'' said an embassy spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

Visiting U.S. technicians who examined the plane said it could be made airworthy. But China has repeatedly insisted that the plane not fly home.

``We do not agree to flying this plane out of China. That is impossible,'' Zhu said at a twice-weekly briefing for reporters.

The collision, which killed the Chinese fighter pilot, plunged relations between Beijing and Washington to their lowest level since NATO bombed China's embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 during the air war over Kosovo.

The 24 crew members of the EP-3E were held for 11 days while China demanded that Washington apologize for the collision.

The collision was one of several incidents that have strained U.S.-China ties.

Most recently, President Bush met Wednesday with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled leader, despite Beijing's protests. Two days before that, Taiwan's president visited New York over Chinese objections.

China views the Dalai Lama as a supporter of Tibetan independence from Chinese rule of the Himalayan region. It also objects to other countries having diplomatic contacts with Taiwan. Beijing claims the island as part of its territory, and has threatened to capture it by force if necessary.

Zhu on Thursday criticized the Bush administration for ``breaking its commitments'' not to have diplomatic contacts with Taiwan.

``The new U.S. administration has gone back on its word,'' Zhu said. He cited Bush's decision last month to sell submarines, destroyers and aircraft to Taiwan.

``This constitutes obstruction to the peaceful reunification of China and is also a provocation to the Chinese people,'' Zhu said.

He said China was willing to see ties improve, but only if Washington stops ``interfering in China's internal affairs.''

``The development of good ties should call on the efforts of both sides,'' he said. ``China-U.S. relations can go back on a normal track.''

China is holding war games in the South China Sea and plans to begin another round of drills on an island across from Taiwan, a Taiwan lawmaker said Thursday after meeting with military officials. China declined comment, and Taiwan's defense ministry said such war games are routine this time of year and unlikely to be linked to the president's U.S. trip.

By removing one of the biggest thorns in the side of American ties with China, the agreement to return the spy plane may signal resolve by both sides to halt the downward spiral in relations.

But a desire by China's government not to been seen as bowing to U.S. pressure may have dragged out the talks over the plane's return.

``There is a genuine nationalism that China's leaders must pay attention to,'' said Jin Canrong, an expert on U.S. affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. ``The leadership doesn't want to appear weak-kneed.

``But it's important to remember that most of China wants good ties with the United States. Most of the leadership wants good ties with the United States,'' Jin said.

He said Beijing leaders have paid unusual attention to chatrooms on the Internet, the site of emotional criticisms of the United States, in considering how to deal with the spy plane. While the more than 25 million people online are only a tiny fraction of China's population of 1.3 billion, the Internet is one of the few barometers of public opinion available to leaders.

Both online and in person, many Chinese seem to accept the government's account that the large, slow-moving U.S. plane rammed the smaller Chinese fighter. U.S. officials blamed the Chinese pilot, saying he flew too close.

China has lionized the pilot, Wang Wei, as a national hero and ``revolutionary martyr.''

The collision fed anti-American anger in China going back to the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Most Chinese still reject the U.S. explanation that the bombing was a mistake.