BEIJING – A crippled American spy plane that landed at one of their airfields was a gift from the sky for China's generals.
It isn't clear how much information they've extracted from the U.S. Navy EP-3E. But the crisis over its in-flight collision with a Chinese fighter has given them a new way to press Washington for an end to spy flights and to pry more money out of their own civilian leaders.
"This is a God-given chance for the Chinese military to claim greater relevance in Chinese politics," said Yu Maochun, a China expert at the U.S. Naval Academy. "It's like a crouching tiger."
The intense secrecy shrouding Chinese politics has made it hard to know precisely what's going on during the crisis. But analysts suggest that the already influential People's Liberation Army, or PLA, may be partly responsible for the continued confinement of the U.S. crew.
The 21 men and three women began their second week in captivity Sunday, with no indication when they might be released.
The crew is being held on Hainan island in the South China Sea, where they made an emergency landing after the collision April 1. U.S. officials say the crew managed to destroy at least some of the plane's supersensitive equipment, although it isn't clear how much.
"The principal organization in charge of this whole affair has been the PLA, at least in the early stages," said Bates Gill, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Signals from Beijing have been confusing.
For two days after the collision, there was almost complete official silence, widely interpreted as a sign that Chinese leaders couldn't agree on what to do.
Then President Jiang Zemin demanded an apology. U.S. officials responded with statements of regret, which China said were a step in the right direction. U.S. officials then reported that negotiations were making headway.
But this weekend, China ratcheted up the pressure.
China's top diplomat said statements of regret were unacceptable. Ominously, China's defense minister, Gen. Chi Haotian, said the 2.5-million member PLA would not allow Washington to "shirk responsibility" for the collision. Chi said China must "build a stronger country and a stronger military."
"We must convert our anger at hegemonism into a huge motivating force," said the defense minister, a veteran of the 1950-53 Korean War, when Chinese soldiers fought beside North Korean troops against American-led U.N. forces.
The military's foremost newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily, declared Sunday that China is entitled "to fully and thoroughly investigate" the spy plane and "the people in charge of it."
Few outcomes could do more damage to already uneasy U.S.-Chinese relations than for China to prosecute the crew as spies.
Playing hardball might be the military's way of pushing its agenda. Chief among its objectives is to draw a line in the sky, rolling back U.S. surveillance flights that Yu at the U.S. Naval Academy said take place on a weekly basis.
The collision took place in international airspace dozens of miles from Chinese territory. But China also asserts an exclusive economic zone that reaches 200 nautical miles — 230 standard miles — out to sea. It says spy planes operating there threaten its national security.
The Liberation Army Daily said Washington should "immediately stop all military surveillance activities off the Chinese coast." "That I think is their strategic objective now — to see if they can whittle down our flying in their 200-mile zone," said Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China.
China's military got a 17.7 percent budget increase in its publicly reported budget this year, and is almost certain to want more. The military is spending heavily to update its arsenal. It has bought Russian fighters, submarines and destroyers armed with missiles that could sink a U.S. aircraft carrier.
Public outrage over U.S. surveillance and the loss of the Chinese pilot could firm up popular backing for more military spending, despite rising unemployment and health care costs and other social problems.
"This incident connects Chinese nationalism with China's military modernization, and that potentially could be very dangerous," Yu said.
And the leadership change expected next year at a major Communist Party congress could be strengthening the military's bargaining power. As they jockey for position, few civilian leaders can afford to alienate the military by compromising with Washington over the spy plane.
"In this uncertain period, and given the sensitive nature of the issue, no politician can afford to look weak," Gill said. "You lose no political points by being tough in this situation."