Washington China says the United States can have its spy plane back, but only if it's chopped into pieces. U.S. officials say that amounts to condemning the $80 million aircraft to the scrap heap, and they are holding out for a deal that would let the plane eventually return to duty.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced Thursday in Beijing that the United States had agreed to chopping up the plane, but Pentagon officials denied this and insisted negotiations would continue.
"There has been no agreement reached as to how the plane will depart Hainan Island," Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said. "I can't explain for you the statement" from Beijing.
The 7-week-old standoff over the surveillance plane, which made an emergency landing on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet, has shifted from arguing over whether it will be released apparently it will to how much political dignity Washington is willing to lose in the process.
"Our preference clearly is to get the aircraft back in the United States in the most efficient, cheapest and best possible way," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
He and others said that means repairing the Navy EP-3E Aries II plane on the military airfield, where it has stood since April 1, and then flying it off the island.
Although China repeated on Thursday that it would never allow the plane to fly away, Quigley said Washington has not given up that option.
An alternative suggested by the United States is to take off the plane's wings and tail section and put those pieces, along with the fuselage, aboard one or two large civilian cargo aircraft, Rumsfeld said. In that scenario, the pieces could be reassembled and the plane returned to spy duty.
China objected to that approach, Rumsfeld said, because they feared the runway at Lingshui air base on Hainan could not handle the stress of the cargo planes.
The approaches discussed so far with the Chinese do not include "chopping up the aircraft," the defense secretary told reporters.
China seems intent on exacting a high political price by not letting the plane fly away under its own power. China contends that the plane, which was eavesdropping on Chinese military communications from international air space when the collision happened, violated its sovereignty. China demanded a U.S. apology for the collision and has insisted that U.S. surveillance flights off its coast be stopped.
Washington refused to make a full apology. Instead, President Bush approved a letter saying America was "very sorry" for the loss of a Chinese pilot and for the U.S. plane's unauthorized entry into Chinese airspace to make an emergency landing. The U.S. surveillance missions have continued.
At the State Department, spokesman Phil Reeker said, "Our strong preference remains to repair and fly out our airplane."