Washington Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed regret Wednesday over the death of a Chinese pilot when his jet fighter collided with a U.S. spy plane. But the Bush administration stood firm in its refusal to apologize.
"We regret the loss of life of that Chinese pilot but now we need to move on," Powell told reporters. "We need to bring this to a resolution and we're using every avenue available to us to talk to the Chinese side to exchange explanations."
In response, Chinese Embassy press counselor Zhang Yuan Yuan called Powell's expression of regret "a step in the right direction." Zhang said his own comment was personal and not an official government position.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the position stated by Powell was expressed earlier in the day by the U.S. ambassador to Beijing in a meeting with the Chinese foreign minister.
"The United States is concerned about the missing Chinese serviceman and we have expressed our concern and our regrets about that incident," Fleischer said.
Powell called the collision a tragic accident, and credited the skills of the U.S. crew for safely landing the aircraft.
Earlier, Fleischer gave what has become the administration's standard response when asked whether there would be an apology: "The United States doesn't understand the reason for an apology. Our airplanes are operating in international airspace, and the United States did nothing wrong."
Fleischer said U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher was summoned to a meeting earlier Wednesday with the Chinese foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, in Beijing. Tang demanded an apology for the incident and Prueher refused, Fleischer said.
"He reiterated what the president said yesterday about President Bush's desire to end this situation, to allow our men and women to come home and have the plane returned as well," Fleischer said.
The Chinese ambassador to Washington, Yang Jiechi, repeated Beijing's assertion that the United States is completely at fault and responsible for ending the standoff. "China is the injured party," he said in an interview with CNN.
Asked how much longer the diplomatic standoff will go on, he said:
"I don't know. I think maybe you should ask some of your countrymen. ... I think it should stop right away and ... should be handled with great care."
Would his government accept a statement of regret? "I think people in your government know how to say it," Yang replied.
China maintains the crew of 24, which made an emergency landing after the collision Sunday, is being held in "protective custody" and that the United States should apologize for the incident that landed them there.
"This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries," Bush said Tuesday. "To keep that from happening, our servicemen and women need to come home."
U.S. diplomatic representatives met Tuesday with the crew members on China's Hainan Island and reported them to be in good health. Chinese officials refused to allow the American officials to meet alone with the crew members and have not allowed them to contact their families in the United States.
The Chinese on Wednesday raised the volume of their call for an apology with President Jiang Zemin making the demand for the first time publicly.
"The U.S. side should apologize to the Chinese people," Jiang said in Beijing before leaving on a visit to Latin America, according to the Xinhua News Agency. "The United States should do something favorable to the smooth development of China-U.S. relations, rather than make remarks that confuse right and wrong and are harmful to the relations."
Prior to Jiang's statement, which came in the middle of the night in Washington, Powell told reporters:
"We have nothing to apologize for. We did not do anything wrong. Our airplane was in international air space, an accident took place, and the pilot, in order to save 24 lives, including his own, under circumstances we now have determined must have been hair-raising, safely got that plane on the ground."
The Navy EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance collided with the Chinese jet over the South China Sea. U.S. officials said the Chinese plane rammed the spy plane; China blamed the collision on the U.S. plane and said it was subject to Chinese control and inspection because it landed in China without permission.
U.S. officials said Wednesday the crew indicated they managed to destroy at least some of the highly sensitive electronic intelligence-gathering equipment and data on board the plane before it landed. It was unclear how much of an intelligence bonanza the Chinese might enjoy if they should keep the plane.
Shortly after the incident, U.S. officials said they believed one of the EP-3E's four engines was damaged in the collision. On Tuesday they said the damage was more extensive, including damage to the nose section, which contains radar equipment; damage to two of the four propellers; and a damaged wing flap.
One official said the plane tumbled 8,000 feet after the collision and had trouble getting its wing flaps down.