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Tough Talk, Mixed Signals

There were dire warnings from Washington and contradictory signs from Beijing Monday as 24 American crewmembers from a grounded spy plane began their second week at a Chinese air base.

President Bush said the continuing impasse over the plane, the crew and the collision that landed them in China could cause permanent harm to U.S.-China ties. Chinese state television used softer language to describe the dispute, but Chinese military leaders seemed to take a harder line.

And a Chinese official traveling with President Jiang Zemin in South America said the U.S. response so far was "unacceptable."

Click here to learn more about the collision.

At the start of a cabinet meeting, Mr. Bush told reporters "Diplomacy takes time," but he added, "Every day that goes by increases the potential that our relations with China will be damaged."

However, CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports that for the first time, China's official news agency Monday reported that the American ambassador is negotiating with the foreign ministry. U.S. officials call it a sign the Chinese government is preparing public opinion for a deal.

The Chinese news agency also now says the American plane "bumped" into the Chinese jet during the April 1 incident, a softer term than earlier Chinese claims that the U.S. aircraft "swerved" into the Chinese jet.

In another encouraging development, American officials met with the crew again Monday without any haggling over conditions of the meeting.

Defense Attache Brigadier General Neal Sealock said the 24 men and women, who are staying in officers' quarters, are in "very good condition."

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A more detailed American version of the midair collision has emerged from Sealock's previous meetings with the crew.

Sources say thpilot of the Navy plane told American diplomats that before the crash, the Chinese jet had already made two passes, coming within three feet of his plane.

As the jet came in a third time, the Navy pilot slowed down, hoping to make the Chinese aircraft pass in front of him. But the jet's tail hit the spy plane's outboard propeller, according to the Navy pilot.

The Chinese jet snapped in half and the American plane went into an 8,000-foot dive. One engine was dead, another damaged, and the pilot could neither gauge his speed nor control it with the plane's flaps. The pilot was about to order his crew to bail out when he regained control and steered the craft to an emergency landing.

Beijing officials are demanding the United States apologize for the collision, the loss of the Chinese pilot and plane and what it claims was an illegal landing by the spy plane at the Chinese base.

The U.S. has refused. Instead, negotiations for the crew's release center on a letter in which the United States would say it regrets the loss of the Chinese pilot and the fact that the Navy plane landed on Chinese territory. Sources say the crew has asked diplomats that the U.S. make no apologies for the incident.

Whether a statement of regret will be enough was not clear Monday, as China's military began moving itself to the front lines of the crisis, with the defense minister visiting the wife of downed pilot Wang Wei and calling for more money to beef up his army.

The official military newspaper, the People's Liberation Army Daily, upped the ante for any settlement, insisting the U.S. must now pay compensation for the missing pilot and the plane.

U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher says they are "making good progress" on talks to end the crisis and gain the release.

CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports the military — a political force that can make or break top Chinese politicians — is especially angry with tough-talking policies from the Bush administration, which has begun calling China a "strategic competitor," has backed off efforts to bring North Korea out of isolation and is thinking about selling advanced weapons to Taiwan.

Also irritating the brass, some here say, was Mr. Bush's demand a week ago for "the prompt and safe return of our crew." Now, even repeated expressions of regret by American officials like Secretary of State Colin Powell may not be enough.

"If at the beginning Powell said this, said he same wording, before Bush jumped out to give that kind of arrogant statement, I think the problem may already be solved," said Yan Xue Tong, executive director of the Institute for International Studies, a Beijing think tank.

Speaking in Buenos Aires, Jiang's spokesman called U.S. efforts so far "unacceptable" and called again for an apology.

China watchers say things could easily get worse if there's no quick end to the standoff, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.

"It's already hardening public perceptions and congressional perceptions in the U.S.," said professor David Shambaugh of George Washington University. "Overall, you're going to find a much harsher tone, much deeper suspicion and real difficulty doing business as usual with this country."

Indeed, in an interview with CBS News Anchor Dan Rather, a congressional leader defended his referring to the crewmembers as "hostages."

"By any definition they're being held against their will and not just for a short period of time and there's a political purpose" to their detention, says Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., who feels those conditions comprise the "definition of a hostage."

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