Chinese Military May Be Behind New Hard Line

As a U.S. air crew entered their second week in detention, China's top military newspaper said Sunday that Beijing is entitled to "thoroughly investigate'' them and their spy plane, and demanded an end to surveillance flights near the Chinese coast.

The article in the Liberation Army Daily added to indications that China's politically powerful military is pressing for a hard line with Washington. The U.S. crew has been held at military facilities since the April 1 collision of their EP-3E surveillance plane with a Chinese fighter jet above the South China Sea.

American diplomats were allowed to meet the 24-member crew for a third time early Sunday morning on Hainan island, where they made an emergency landing after the collision. The Chinese fighter pilot is missing.

"The air crew is well. ... [We're] hoping to get them out of here before too long," U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher told reporters as he walked into church Sunday.

Later in the day, Prueher went to a meeting at the Foreign Ministry. Embassy officials wouldn't say whom he met or what they discussed.

The Liberation Army Daily report suggested that the military wants to leverage their captivity to press Washington to end spy flights near China. The U.S. Navy plane is believed to have been monitoring military radio, radar and other signals when it collided with one of two Chinese fighter jets sent to track it.

"China has the right to fully and thoroughly investigate this entire incident, including the American military aircraft and the people in charge of it,'' the newspaper said. It repeated Beijing's demand for an American apology and added its own requirement: "The U.S. government should ... immediately stop all military surveillance activities off the Chinese coast.''

The report came a day after Defense Minister Gen. Chi Haotian said the army wouldn't let Washington "shirk responsibility'' for the incident. The White House has declined to apologize, saying it believes the collision was an accident.

Chinese authorities have confirmed they questioned the U.S. crew. They accuse the pilot of breaking the law by making an emergency landing at a Chinese air base without applying in advance for permission.

The stern military tone has been in contrast to assurances by civilian leaders that Beijing wants an early settlement and doesn't want to hurt U.S.-Chinese relations.

It also adds to suspicions that military and security forces -- the most hawkish segment of China's government -- were obstructing a settlement.

Beijing and Washington agree the collision took place in international airspace some 50 miles outside China's territorial waters. But China also claims an exclusive economic zone that extends 230 miles out to sea, and says the plane had no right to conduct surveillance there.

A diplomat who met with the U.S. crew early Sunday said they were in "high spirits'' after receiving e-mails from their families.

"They are looking forward to going home. They do offer that they very much appreciate the e-mails that they've been allowed to receive from home,'' said the U.S. Embassy military attache, Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock.

In a positive sign, Sealock said U.S. diplomats had "unfettered access'' to the crew Sunday. He said he updated the crew on efforts to win their release and on news and sports. Previous meetings were tightly controlled.

Sealock said he has asked to see the crew twice daily. Prueher said diplomats were waiting for a response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

In Washington, President Bush was "focused on continued diplomatic efforts'' to free the crew, a White House spokeswoman said.

Bush has expressed regret over the loss of the Chinese pilot. But when asked Saturday whether an apology was possible, National Security Council spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said Washington's position was "unchanged.''

China's top foreign affairs official, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, told Secretary of State Colin Powell in a letter made public Saturday that stance was ``still unacceptable.'' The United States, Qian said, must "apologize to the Chinese people.''

And the defense minister stepped up pressure.

"It's impermissible for them to want to shirk responsibility,'' Chi told the missing pilot's wife, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. "The People's Liberation Army does not agree to it. The Chinese people don't agree to it.''

Civilian leaders could be reluctant to oppose the military on such a nationalistic issue. They already are positioning themselves for leadership changes at a Communist Party congress next year, and none can afford to be accused of bending to Washington.

Beijing officials may fear that a compromise, with China's fighter pilot still missing, would inflame public anger. State media have praised the missing pilot, Wang Wei, for his patriotic sacrifice.

Xinhua said soldiers were channeling their grief into military strength to "protect the motherland's sovereignty and the people's dignity.''

A search for the pilot was in its eighth day Sunday, though a rescue commander was quoted Saturday as saying that "the hope of Wang Wei surviving is getting slim.''

Such reports appear to be aimed at preparing the public for confirmation of Wang's death. Analysts say that would be a key step toward winning the release of the American crew.

Wang's wife, Ruan Guoqin, entered a Beijing hospital on Friday evening, overcome by stress, the newspaper Beijing Youth Daily said Sunday. The White House has confirmed that it received a letter from Ruan accusing Bush of being "too cowardly to voice an apology.''