Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday placed the blame for the April 1 collision of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet squarely on the shoulders of the Chinese pilot.
The U.S. plane "was flying straight and level, it was on autopilot and it did not deviate from a straight and level path until it was hit by the Chinese fighter aircraft," Rumsfeld said firmly in a Washington, D.C., press conference.
Flatly contradicting Chinese accounts of the incident, Rumsfeld added that the Navy plane issued several mayday warnings before making an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. The collision, the landing and the crew's subsequent detention by the Chinese government became the subject of a tense, 11-day diplomatic confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
Using props that sometimes made it seem like a courtroom scene and not a question-and-answer session with reporters, Rumsfeld played audio and videotapes of previous run-ins between U.S. planes and Chinese fighters. One included a near-collision with either the same Chinese fighter plane or one with the same number painted on its body.
"We got bumped. We got thumped," an American pilot was heard saying.
"This guy's squirrely. Not real steady," he said later in the tape.
The U.S. hopes tapes like these will help it prove that America was not to blame and isn't obliged to offer a formal apology to China.
"The Chinese pilots have been maneuvering aggressively against our pilots for months," Rumsfeld said, citing 44 recent cases. "The F-8 pilot clearly put at risk the lives of 24 Americans."
As for Chinese contentions that the U.S. was in the wrong for sending a surveillance plane in the first place, Rumsfeld emphatically said:
"Our EP-3 was flying an over reconnaissance and surveillance mission ... in international airspace in an aircraft clearly marked as U.S. Navy. It was on a well-known flight path that we have used for decades.
"Many countries use such flights," he said pointedly, "including China."
The Pentagon will continue the flights, he said, for the benefit of the United States "and our allies ... in the region."
Rumsfeld, who spoke to the Navy plane's pilot Thursday, also said the 24 crew members were greeted on Hainan by armed Chinese troops, though he was careful to add that it wasn't certain whether their guns were holstered.
He also said the crew was able to destroy much of the intelligence data aboard the plane.
Earlier, even as the Navy crew members were on a Hawaiian military base being debriefed by U.S. officials, President Bush said China would have to answer some "tough questions" at an inquiry next week.
"The kind of incident we have just been through does not advance a constructive relationship between our countries," Bush said.
In the letter to China that freed the crew but not their aircraft, the U.S. offered regret for the death of the Chinese pilot killed in the collision and for the emergency landing made on Chinese soil without advance permission -- but not, it insists, a formal apology, as Chinese media have blared.
Referring to next Wednesday's joint meeting 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."
China claims its authority begins 200 miles out from shore, far more than the 12 miles the U.S. and many other countries adhere to.
Indeed, there was no hint of the differing accounts of the collision in Chinese media on Friday.
"The U.S. reconnaissance plane had intruded into China's airspace and rammed a Chinese fighter," the official China Daily newspaper quoted Premier Zhu Rongji as saying. "The U.S. side must take the entire responsibility for the plane collision incident."
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."
"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 dispute is 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.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, indicated that Bush will 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.