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 six 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 were insisting that the United States apologize for the spy flight, a move American officials have insisted 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 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.
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 United States was at fault, and he called on the Americans to stop sending surveillance missions so close to his nation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said the United States "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."
Chinese officials said they reserved the right to conduct their own investigation of the collision, including an inspection of the U.S. aircraft. And they said there was no record that the EP-3 had issued a mayday call, which they said is necessary before a disabled plane can land in a foreign country.
U.S. defense officials said the aircraft had transmitted the international distress signal before landing.