WASHINGTON - Winning the release of the 24 Americans was President Bush's priority. But sticky U.S.-China issues are still unresolved, including the fate of the Navy spy plane and China's insistence that the American military stop flying reconnaissance missions near its coast.
``This is not over,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday in Paris. ``Some discussions will begin, and we still have our plane there. But this will all unfold in the days and weeks ahead.''
The next step is a meeting of U.S. and Chinese officials next Wednesday to discuss responsibility for the Navy plane's collision with a Chinese fighter jet. The officials will also get into ways of preventing future incidents, the question of returning the damaged plane and China's objections to the flights.
Hovering over it all is an issue of even greater importance to the Chinese: whether Bush will agree to Taiwan's request to buy U.S. Navy destroyers equipped with advanced Aegis radar systems. That decision, which had been in the works before the April 1 collision, is expected to come late this month and could well have a more profound effect on U.S.-China relations than the plane incident.
China is determined to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, and it sees U.S. arms sales as an affront to Chinese sovereignty. In a similar vein, China objects to U.S. reconnaissance flights along its coastline because they provide intelligence on military activities across the narrow waterway from Taiwan.
The U.S. military has been collecting intelligence in that area for decades, and Vice President Dick Cheney made clear on Wednesday that the Bush administration has no intention of stopping.
``With the respect to the right of the United States to continue to operate our aircraft in international airspace, that really is a given. That is not a subject that we would want to concede on,'' Cheney told WAMU-FM.
The administration also wants the electronic surveillance plane returned, even if the Chinese have stripped it of the sensitive equipment used to eavesdrop on the Chinese military.
China appears in no hurry to give it back. China's deputy U.N. ambassador Shen Guofang said Wednesday there would be ``further investigation'' of the aircraft to consider ``legal aspects'' of the matter.
The United States has maintained that the Navy EP-3E Aries II plane was about 60 miles from Hainan Island - well beyond the 12-mile limit of China's territorial waters - when it collided with a Chinese fighter jet, whose pilot ejected and apparently perished.
China asserts that the U.S. plane turned into its fighter and violated international law by landing on Hainan without first gaining China's permission. U.S. officials say the plane was landed on the island only as an emergency measure.
In a letter Wednesday that provided the basis for China's agreement to release the air crew, U.S. ambassador Joseph Prueher made clear that next week's meeting would include discussion of future flights.
``We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting,'' Prueher wrote.
Although the Bush administration expressed regret for the loss of the Chinese pilot and said it was ``very sorry'' the U.S. plane entered China's airspace without permission, it said it would not offer the full apology China had demanded. The choice of words was important not just in the present case but possibly also for the future.
In the view of some, an apology would have amounted to a concession that eavesdropping on China was wrong, thus legitimizing China's demand that the United States halt reconnaissance flights.
That was a concern in 1970 after a U.S. pilotless reconnaissance plane went down on Hainan island. Anticipating the possibility that China would demand an apology, State Department official Harry Thayer wrote in a recently declassified memorandum that apologizing would set a bad precedent.
``An apology in this case might also lead the Chinese to press us to take the next step of foreswearing such acts for the future,'' Thayer wrote.