Bejing — China granted American diplomats a third meeting with the detained crew of an American spy plane early today as top Chinese officials rejected Bush administration expressions of regret and insisted upon an apology for a collision that apparently cost a Chinese fighter pilot his life.
The White House countered that there would be no apology.
"Our position is unchanged," said Mary Ellen Countryman, spokeswoman for the National Security Council. She said the administration remained hopeful that the crisis would soon come to an end.
The day's developments threw more uncertainty into efforts to bring about a quick resolution of the week-long standoff as Chinese and American officials tried to hammer out a proposed agreement that would lead to the release of the 24-member crew detained on China's Hainan Island since their plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet.
But while diplomats on both sides continued negotiating toward a settlement that would include an official expression of U.S. regret, China publicly showed no indication of relenting, and in fact suggested a hardening of resolve by quoting a top military official demanding an apology as well as sending a letter to the United States rejecting the American expression of regret.
China's vice premier, Qian Qichen, in a strongly worded letter, turned down Secretary of State Colin Powell's letter expressing regrets for the collision.
"Up to now, the American attitude is still unacceptable to the Chinese side, and the Chinese people are extremely dissatisfied with this," he said.
Still, Qian noted in part, "China hates to see the bilateral relations damaged by this incident."
The military official Gen. Chi Haotian, the defense minister said that the People's Liberation Army would not let the United States "shirk responsibility" in the incident.
The voice of the military demanding an apology added a sobering counterpoint to any acknowledgement that China was acting to avoid a crisis in ties with the United States, suggesting that hard-liners in Beijing's consensus-oriented government could be intent on delaying a settlement.
China's motivation for holding out for an apology is clouded by the secretive inner-workings of the Communist Party leadership, but it is assumed that the government in part is playing to powerful nationalistic sentiment. The public remains sensitive to China's history of domination by colonial powers and is suspicious of American intentions in Asia.
Still, both sides appear to recognize that the longer the crisis lasts, the more public opinion could harden in each country, making a resolution more difficult. China potentially has more to lose than the United States as it opens its economy and becomes more reliant on global trade.
Chinese television Saturday for first time reported news that Bush had offered regrets while newspapers showed a photo of the president with his head bowed, suggesting remorse. The media has also portrayed the lost fighter pilot as a hero.
China blames the United States for the April 1 collision in international airspace over the South China Sea, saying the United States turbo-prop plane veered into one of two Chinese fighters, causing it to crash. China said the American plane then invaded Chinese airspace and landed at a military airfield without permission.
The United States says the fighter was flying too aggressively and bumped the bigger, slower EP-3E surveillance plane, which lost a propeller, declared an emergency and struggled to reach the closest runway. The United States refuses to apologize because it says the American plane was not at fault. It says the aircraft was in international airspace and had the right to land in China after declaring a "mayday."
Behind-the-scenes diplomacy in Beijing and Washington is focusing on a formal exchange of views between Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin about the accident and the assignment of a joint commission established in 1998 to investigate it. The Bush administration has said that the formal exchange of views would not contain an apology, only regrets for the loss of life of the Chinese pilot.
Under this scenario, the crew would be released when both sides agreed on wording of their formal exchange of views, which would be contained in a letter. The plane would be released at a later time, officials in Washington say.