BEIJING – A team of U.S. technicians arrived on the southern Chinese island of Hainan on Tuesday to figure out how to get a damaged Navy surveillance plane back to the United States.
The technicians from Lockheed Martin, the main contractor for the EP-3E surveillance plane, are expected to meet with Chinese officials in Hainan, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said.
An embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he didn't know exactly how many people were on the inspection team.
The team will then visit the surveillance plane, still believed to be at Lingshui air base on Hainan, where it made an emergency landing April 1 after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet.
The collision over the South China Sea touched off a tense 11-day standoff between Beijing and Washington over return of the 24-member U.S. crew.
China demanded an apology and end to surveillance flights off its coast. The United States called the collision an accident and has refused to end similar flights.
The U.S. team is expected to stay on Hainan for at least two days to determine whether the $80 million high tech plane can by flown back to the United States or must be shipped back in pieces.
Another team will probably be sent to repair or remove the plane, depending on the first team's recommendations.
Vice President Cheney said Sunday the plane cannot be flown now and will probably have to be taken out on a barge. The U.S. military will also consider using a mammoth C-5 or C-17 transport aircraft to carry it out.
U.S. officials said earlier that the Chinese apparently had ruled out allowing the plane to be repaired and flown out on its own.
"I hope they'll get a look at it, make an assessment. That's what we have to do first and then get on to get that out," U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher told reporters earlier Tuesday.
Prueher played a key role in securing the U.S. crew's release. Ending his 17-month tenure as the U.S. ambassador to Beijing on Tuesday, he warned that China's holding onto the plane was hurting already strained ties between the two countries.
"The airplane is sort of a corrosive element right now in our relationship. It's a reminder of a hard spot, and we need to clean that up and get on with things," Prueher said at Beijing's international airport before taking a flight to the United States with his wife, Suzanne.
Under Prueher, relations with China mended after the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999. That attack sparked anti-American protests in Beijing and other cities.
The surveillance plane collision sent U.S.-China relations to their lowest level since the 1999 bombing. A U.S. offer last week to sell submarines, aircraft and destroyers to Taiwan, the island Beijing regards as a breakaway province, caused further strains.
The Chinese government has used the surveillance plane collision to whip up anti-American anger. State-run media still carries frequent criticisms of the United States as the world's bully.
The government has also lionized Chinese pilot Lt. Cmdr. Wang Wei, who disappeared in the collision and is believed dead. On Monday, the Chinese post office issued a commemorative envelope with a photo of Wang and his F-8 jet.
"Comrade Wang Wei gave his young life for safeguarding national sovereignty and security. His spirit lives forever, and people will remember him forever," the envelope says.
The U.S. team was briefed by U.S. military officials in Hawaii before departing for Hainan, a tropical island in the Tonkin Gulf near Vietnam.
The EP-3E was over international waters south of Hainan when it collided with the Chinese F-8. Because of its proximity to Vietnam, with which China fought a war in 1979, the island is dotted with People's Liberation Army military bases.
Prueher's replacement will be Clark "Sandy" Randt, a fraternity buddy at Yale of President Bush and chief China lawyer at the law firm of Shearman & Sterling. A former commercial attache at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Randt is fluent in Mandarin.