WASHINGTON – Navy crew members returning Thursday from 11 days of detention disputed China's account of the collision that brought down their surveillance plane. President Bush said "tough questions" would be put to China at an inquiry next week.
His tone stern, Bush said at the White House, "The kind of incident we have just been through does not advance a constructive relationship between our countries."
Through most of the protracted negotiations that freed the crew but not their aircraft, Bush had approached Beijing with diplomatic care, insisting the surveillance was legal but also approving expressions of sorrow the Chinese pilot was lost and the American plane did not seek approval for its emergency landing after the April 1 collision.
But after crew members told debriefers they were on a "fixed course" and had not swerved into the Chinese jet fighter, as Beijing contended, Bush stood in the Rose Garden and let loose, castigating not only the detention of the 21 men and three women, but China's record on human rights, religious freedom and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
"The United States and China will no doubt again face difficult issues and fundamental disagreements. We disagree on important, basic issues," he said.
Referring to a scheduled joint meeting next Wednesday on the collision, the disposition of the Navy plane and related issues, Bush said: "I will ask our United States representative to ask the tough questions about China's recent practice of challenging United States aircraft operating legally in international airspace."
Reconnaissance flights, he said, "are a part of a comprehensive national security strategy that helps maintain peace and stability in our world."
In diplomatic exchanges over the incident, Bush said, "the United States and China have confronted strong emotions, deeply held and often conflicting convictions and profoundly different points of view."
A few hours earlier, a senior Pentagon official told The Associated Press the Americans were flying level and were on a fixed course at fixed altitude when the Chinese plane struck the U.S. aircraft.
With the crew safely back on American soil in Hawaii, Bush said, "China's decision to prevent the return of our crew for 11 days is inconsistent with the kind of relations we have both said we want to have."
"From all the evidence we have seen, the United States aircraft was operating in international airspace, in full accordance with all laws, procedures and regulations and did nothing to cause the accident," he said.
Bush, who spoke with crew members before making his statement, said they "did their duty with honor and great professionalism."
Only a few hours earlier, the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had said the U.S. relationship with China was on a productive course.
But China's Deputy U.N. ambassador, Shen Guofang, told The Associated Press in New York, "We have to make further investigations on the plane and also to have consultation on their further activities along our coastal areas."
He said investigations of U.S. flights "will take some time," and he described the April 18 meeting as one of experts, thereby suggesting it would not be conclusive.
"We have to convince the Americans that if they have further activities like this along our coastal areas, it is not in the interests of both countries and it is very dangerous for them, because maybe in the future, I'm not sure whether this kind of collision will happen again if they still will carry out spy activities like this," Shen said.
Meanwhile, the crew landed in Hawaii to cheers and to face two long days of debriefing before weekend reunions with families and friends.
"We're definitely glad to be back," said Lt. Shane Osborn, the mission commander, in a statement to officials and military families.
"I'm very pleased they are back on American soil," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday in Paris.
Bush was having lunch at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney when the plane carrying the crew arrived in Hawaii. The president looked up at television reports of the arrival and told Cheney, "Good news. Welcome home."
For Bush, still enmeshed in his first major overseas squabble, handling of the diplomacy with China was testing his support at home among political conservatives.
The dispute was giving impetus to a bill to overturn last year's law paving the way for China to gain permanent normal trade relations with the United States.
"This incident calls into question our current policy of sending American trade dollars to a nation that has displayed signs of hostility toward the United States," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who proposed the measure to overturn the trade law.
"The Chinese didn't act in a normal way, so it brings the trade deal under greater scrutiny," said Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who voted for the trade bill but now has his doubts. "The jury is still out on whether we would approve an extension."
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, indicated that Bush would not yield. "I think we all believe that trade with China, the effort to try and build an entrepreneurial class in China, to try to bring some freedom to that society through freer economics, is an important goal," she said on CBS' The Early Show.