BEIJING – China will search for the remains of U.S. victims from an Air Force bomber that crashed nearly 60 years ago, state media said Tuesday, a likely gesture of goodwill just weeks ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's first visit to the country.
Efforts to find missing servicemen are deeply symbolic for the U.S. and Chinese militaries, whose ties have been strained by U.S. criticism of China's military buildup and Chinese objections to U.S. surveillance operations.
China last year yielded to a long-standing U.S. request to provide access to military records that might resolve the fate of thousands of U.S. servicemen missing from the Korean War and other Cold War-era conflicts.
Obama is due to visit China on Nov. 15-18.
"We are extremely appreciative of the assistance of the Chinese government" in helping resolve the cases of U.S. servicemen missing in action, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Tuesday.
Reports say the U.S. bomber caught fire and crashed on Nov. 5, 1950, while flying over southern Guangdong province. Its mission was not known. Records and eyewitness accounts indicated that four bodies were buried at the crash site, while the fate of the other 11 on board wasn't clear.
Investigators have identified an area of about 100 square yards where the U.S. remains were most likely to be found, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Witness Xu Yueshu told Xinhua he saw an aircraft crash into a mountain.
"The adults buried the remains. When I got up there I saw many of the aircraft's pieces scattered everywhere. I remember very clearly that one quite complete body was buried on the mountain ridge," Xu said.
Military archives show that villagers found a parachute, rifles, a revolver, spoons, documents in English and a Parker pen, Xinhua said.
More than 8,100 U.S. servicemen are still unaccounted for from the Korean War, when the U.S. and Communist Chinese troops were on opposite sides.
Analysts said progress in finding them may be an effort to improve the atmosphere ahead of Obama's visit.
While other aspects of military ties remain fraught, the search for MIAs is seen by both sides as a positive factor in relations, said Jin Linbo, a senior fellow with the China Institute for International Studies.
Tuesday's announcement may also underscore China's objections to U.S. air and sea surveillance missions off its coast, said David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"It shows a willingness to work with the U.S. to resolve painful long-term memories of lost Americans, but also that the U.S. is still doing this in the region," he said.
Declassified U.S. Army records from the 1950s make it clear that the United States knew of hundreds of American prisoners in China during the Korean War and feared for their lives.
Since China's agreement last year on military records, more than 100 documents have been found that relate to missing U.S. servicemen, Xinhua said.
The People's Liberation Army Archives Department is combing through more than 1.5 million files relating to Chinese ground forces in Korea during the war, along with those concerning the PLA high command and the Central Military Commission.
China's second-highest ranking officer, Gen. Xu Caihou, said Monday in Washington that valuable information had been uncovered. Finds include a photograph and identification documents of U.S. Air Force Capt. Gilbert Tenney, who was shot down and killed on May 3, 1952, at the mouth of the Yalu River that divides North Korea from China.
The work of the PLA researchers "is a testimony to the great value that the Chinese military personnel place on China-U.S. military-to-military relations," Xu said.