BEIJING – China will let U.S. personnel inspect a Navy surveillance plane at the military airport in southern China where it landed after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet, the official Xinhua News Agency and U.S. officials said Sunday.
Beijing's decision to allow an inspection of the EP-3E surveillance plane suggested that Chinese leaders are interested in easing tensions caused to China-U.S. relations by the April 1 collision and its aftermath.
In Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney welcomed the decision as an ``encouraging sign.''
``The fact that they've now announced they're willing to have U.S. personnel go in and look at the aircraft, if that's what it's going to take to get it back, then that's very positive,'' Cheney said on ``Fox News Sunday.''
Xinhua did not say when the U.S. inspection would take place.
A State Department official confirmed that the United States will be granted access to the plane, but said details have not been worked out.
At April 18-19 talks in Beijing, American negotiators presented a written proposal for U.S. experts to inspect the plane to determine whether to repair and fly it out or ship it out in pieces.
``Having completed its investigation and evidence collection involving the U.S. plane and in view of international precedents in handling such issues, the Chinese side has decided to allow the U.S. side to inspect its plane at the Lingshui Airport,'' Xinhua said.
The badly damaged U.S. plane made an emergency landing at Lingshui, on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, after the collision over the South China Sea. China held the 24 U.S. crew members for 11 days while it sought an apology from Washington, releasing them only after protracted negotiations. The Chinese pilot was killed.
Xinhua also said the United States has agreed to consider making a payment to China. It did say what it would be for, but said the two sides will conduct more negotiations ``on the specific amount of the U.S. payment and the items to be covered.''
Cheney said the United States will pay all costs in bringing the plane back, but has no plans to compensate Beijing for the collision.
``We will pay whatever costs associated with recovering the aircraft in terms of transportation, barge, cranes, whatever is required to get it back out,'' he said.
Xinhua said the two sides recently held several rounds of talks in Beijing on the plane, though it wasn't immediately clear whether the news agency was referring to the talks previously disclosed.
It said discussions on a ``final settlement'' of the issue will continue. The agency also said the two sides have agreed to explore ways to avoid similar incidents through discussions in a U.S.-China commission on military maritime safety.
But there was no indication from the report that China is preparing to return the plane.
Crewmen aboard the U.S. plane used hammers and other measures to try to disable intelligence equipment, but some secrets still fell into Chinese hands, according to U.S. defense officials. Satellite photos indicate that China has examined the $80 million plane's high-tech listening devices and other electronics.
The United States and China have given conflicting accounts of the collision. Chinese officials accused the U.S. pilot of swerving into the fighter. Washington says the nimbler Chinese jet was flying too close and accidentally struck the larger, propeller-driven American plane.
China agreed to free the U.S. crew after President Bush said Washington was ``very sorry'' for the loss of the Chinese pilot and the American plane's landing without permission on Hainan.
The Bush administration has made clear it intends to resume surveillance flights in international airspace off China's coast, despite Beijing's demands that they stop. Xinhua's report did not mention the demand that flights cease.