Beijing Says 'Yes, But...'

China has indicated that it'll be later, rather than sooner, before American diplomats get access to the crew of a Navy spy plane that made an emergency landing within its borders following a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet over the weekend.

Initially, Beijing said that U.S. diplomats could get access to the crew on Tuesday morning, local time - but that later changed to Tuesday night.

"We find it very troubling about the lack of speed," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "We continue to press for prompt access."

Earlier Monday, in front of White House, President Bush called upon China to grant "prompt" access to the spy plane's crew of 21 men and 3 women.

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Mr. Bush said the U.S. "knows from its own information" that the plane had made a safe landing on the Chinese island of Hainan after the collision.

U.S. officials are assuming the Chinese boarded the Navy plane at some point after the landing, but they won't know for sure until speaking to the crew.

CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports American spy satellites can see the Navy plane sitting on the tarmac at the Chinese base, and U.S. military officials say it does not appear to be badly damaged.

The aircraft is crammed with electronic gear used by the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Chinese communications. In his final radio transmission, the pilot of the Navy plane reported that armed Chinese military soldiers had surrounded the aircraft.

While the aircraft's crew should have destroyed as much equipment as possible, Pentagon officials admit that the Chinese have probably gotten their hands on some of America's most sophisticated spy gear. At this point, the U.S. can only complain that the Chinese are violating the aircraft's immunity under international law.

Officially, Beijing has said it has made "proper arrangements" for the plane's crew members. A Chinese sailor at a military installation in Lingshui, where the U.S. plane landed, said the American crew has been moved to a military guesthouse.

"We have been in contact with the Chinese government since Saturday night," said Mr. Bush, adding that the U.S. aircraft had "collided with one of two Chinese fighters that were shadowing the plane."

The U.S. plane
made an emergency landing
in Hainan.

The president further said that China's first step should be "immediate access" for U.S. diplomats who are in Hainan, waiting to speak with th Navy crew.

In addition, Mr. Bush said China must return both the crew and the plane promptly, without any further damage to - or any tampering with - the aircraft loaded with top-secret equipment.

Shortly after the president's remarks, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said he hoped "an adequate solution can be found soon." Making an official visit to Paris, Tang was asked when the American crew members can return to the U.S.

"It's not our plane which hit the American plane, quite the contrary. Our pilot is still missing," he replied, referring to the Chinese jet that was downed as a result of the collision.

Both countries agree the weekend incident took place about 60 miles southeast of Hainan, an island off China's southeast coast, near Vietnam. Where the two nations do not agree is how it happened. China blames the Navy plane for the collision, while the U.S. says the cause remains under investigation.

According to the Navy, the plane was on a routine surveillance flight in international airspace when two Chinese F-8 fighters intercepted it.

Adm. Dennis Blair, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said Sunday that the faster, more maneuverable Chinese plane had bumped into the larger, slower U.S. aircraft. Blair also criticized what he called previous "unsafe"" intercepts of American planes by Chinese fighters in the area.

"We went to the Chinese and said, 'Your aircraft are not intercepting in a professional manner. There's a situation here,'" said Blair. "It's not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air."

The U.S. military already had protested such behavior before the incident, but did not receive a satisfactory response, he said.

Saying the United States has "total responsibility for this event," China claims the aircraft intruded into its air space and landed without permission. Beijing regards most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters - a claim rejected by countries that use the vast expanse of ocean for shipping.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Beijing insisted the American pilot was following "commonly accepted principles of international law" when the plane made its emergency landing on Hainan.

The incident comes at an uneasy time in relations between Washington and Beijing. Though not yet a crisis, the stand-off between Washington and Beijing could quickly become one if it drags on a few more days, reports CBS News White House Correspondent John Roberts.

James Sasser, the former U.S. ambassador to China during the Clinton administration, said: "If they continue to hold the crew and hold the aircraft and behave in belligerent fashion, then I think it is going to have a very chilling effect on Chinese-American relations."

Even before the incident, the nature of the U.S.-Chinese relationship was in flux. President Clinton had embraced China as a "strategic partner," but President Bus has made it clear that he sees the Chinese as "strategic competitors."

"This is something that puts the Chinese on edge. They're worried about it," said Sasser.

Reuters/U.S. Navy
A U.S. Navy EP-3 similar
to the one involved in the
Chinese collision.

What worries China most is the Bush administration's possible sale of sophisticated new weapons to Taiwan - including four Arleigh Burke destroyers, each with a state-of-the-art Aegis radar system. All that military hardware could form the core of a missile defense shield for Taiwan - a capability that enrages Beijing, which considers the island as a province of China.

Mr. Bush intends to make the decision on the destroyers within a few weeks. Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Monday what the U.S. sells to Taiwan will depend on "how the Chinese are acting."

The Navy plane grounded in China is an EP-3E Aries II, one of the most sophisticated and heavily-used electronic surveillance planes in the U.S. military. With 19 crew work stations, the EP-3's mission is to collect and process signals from radar and other electronic communications, flying regularly in the South China Sea to monitor China's military activity across the strait from Taiwan.

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