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Bush Asks China for Access To Crew Members of Plane

By Henry Chu and James Gerstenzang

Two dozen crew members of a downed American spy plane were held incommunicado in China Tuesday morning, as President Bush demanded that U.S. officials be given prompt access to them and that their airplane be returned “without any further tampering.”

As dawn broke over Hainan Island, where the plane limped to a safe landing after a midair collision Sunday morning with a Chinese fighter jet, three U.S. officials were waiting to visit the crew. Officials in Washington said they had been promised that the meeting would take place by the end of the day.

The encounter between the two airplanes over the South China Sea brought the Bush administration to the cusp of its first foreign policy crisis. Tensions grew as the hours ticked by and Chinese officials prohibited the diplomats from visiting the crew.

But China’s foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, said he hoped an “adequate solution” could be found to the dispute.

The Bush administration took a deliberately low-key approach. The president issued firm but nonthreatening statements. His senior aides remained in the shadows, offering no suggestion that the administration has moved to crisis footing.

“Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew, and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering,” the president said. “The first step should be immediate access by our embassy personnel to our crew members. I am troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to our request for this access.”

Holding out the possibility that the future of the U.S.-Chinese relationship under his administration was at stake, however, Bush added:

“Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice, and with the expressed desire of both our countries for better relations.”

One White House official said Bush was trying to make clear what he expected of China, “but also give the Chinese time to get to the right decision.”

“The Chinese political leadership knows we have a lot of important work to do together, without this burdening the relationship,” the official added.

Seeming to make the same point, Tang said that “the American side has explained time and again to our ambassador that this incident will not influence the general interests between China and the United States.”

The row represents the gravest test to U.S.-Chinese relations in two years, since NATO’s mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. That event sparked a wave of violent anti-American protests across China.

Despite Chinese anger over the collision, however, reaction on the streets remained muted, with no repeat of the rock-throwing and demonstrating seen two years ago.

U.S. officials were concerned that the Chinese would start examining the hobbled EP-3 reconnaissance plane, which is laden with some of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced electronic eavesdropping equipment.

Beijing insisted that the United States was at fault for the collision and that the “proper arrangements” had been made to take care of the 24 American crew members. The pilot of the Chinese jet involved in the collision remained missing after his F-8 crashed as a result of the incident, the government said.