U.S. spy plane, Chinese fighter collide
American crew lands in China; fighter pilot missing
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. reconnaissance plane made an emergency landing in China on Sunday after colliding with a Chinese fighter sent to intercept it.
U.S. officials said the EP-3 Aries II, a U.S. Navy electronic surveillance aircraft, was on a routine mission over international waters off China when the collision occurred about 9:15 a.m. (8:15 p.m. Saturday EST). The damaged spy plane landed on the Chinese island of Hainan, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) southwest of Hong Kong, and none of its crew of 24 was injured.
Chinese state television said the F-8 fighter jet involved in the collision crashed into the South China Sea off Hainan, and its pilot was missing. The collision appeared accidental, said Air Force Lt. Col. Dewey Ford, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii.
"They made contact, and there was enough damage that our aircraft had to land in the People's Republic of China," Ford said.
The EP-3 is a sensitive surveillance aircraft that aviation experts say is capable of monitoring electronic communications and aircraft movements inside the Chinese mainland from points offshore.
Crew 'safe and well,' China says
The Pentagon said the last contact with the plane's crew came immediately after the plane landed.
"The concern is for the air crew more than anything else," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman. "We want to get them back." But he added: "We need to make sure everyone understands the plane is sovereign U.S. property. It is not subject to boarding or seizure."
Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China, met with China's vice foreign minister Sunday and held an "initial discussion to resolve the situation," a State Department official said.
The Chinese described the crew members as "safe and well," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. The Chinese did not indicate to Prueher what might happen next, Boucher said.
The four-engine turboprop was based on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The extent of the damage to the Aries was not clear.
U.S. military officials say intercepts on such missions are common. Chinese officials said the U.S. plane veered into their fighter, but Pentagon officials said they had no detailed information about the collision Sunday afternoon.
"Currently, China has given proper treatment to the 24 crew members of the U.S. plane," reported Xinhua, China's official news agency. "China reserves its right to pursue further on the issue of the U.S. plane entering Chinese airspace and landing at [a] Chinese airport without Chinese authorization."
Strained U.S.-China relations
President Bush was briefed about the incident, an administration official told CNN, and diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing were on their way to Hainan. Bush returned to the White House early Sunday afternoon after a weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat. Current U.S.-China relations are rocky, with hard-liners in both countries urging their governments to take a tougher line toward each other.
The Bush administration is trying to redefine the relationship between China and the United States from that of a "strategic partner" to a "strategic competitor." Since taking office in January, Bush has taken a harder line with China on human rights and religious freedom.
The administration also is considering whether to sell destroyers equipped with the advanced Aegis air defense radar system to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
In addition, a senior Chinese army officer recently defected to the United States, and Beijing is holding a Chinese-born U.S. resident accused of spying.
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