BEIJING – Continuing the denouement to the air collision that had the U.S. and China locked in a bitter international squabble, American technicians left China Saturday after examining the U.S. Navy surveillance plane.
Inspectors from plane manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. are winging their way from Hainan Island to Hawaii after the inspection, a spokesman with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said, speaking on condition he not be named. Washington hopes it will be the next step to getting the secrets-filled plane back in American hands and finally defusing the potentially explosive incident.
The technicians concluded the plane could be repaired and safely flown off the island, according to U.S. officials. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wants the plane flown out, but Chinese authorities have reportedly ruled out that idea. A more time-consuming solution would be to dismantle the four-engine turboprop plane and transport it by barge or aircraft.
The technicians will submit their findings about the EP-3E Aries II to the Hawaii headquarters of Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Chinese officials have shared their own findings about the plane with the U.S., the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The two sides will "continue their discussions for the final settlement," Xinhua said. The news service did not specifically mention a possible return of the $80 million plane.
China's granting permission for the team to inspect the plane was seen as a sign it wanted to draw a conclusion to the incident, which delivered a blow to already delicate relations between Beijing and Washington.
China accuses the U.S. plane of ramming the F-8 fighter on April 1, causing the death of the pilot. In a heated 11-day standoff, Chinese authorities held the plane's 24-member crew until President George W. Bush sent Beijing a letter saying the United States was "very sorry" for a Chinese pilot's death and for the U.S. plane's landing without permission.
China is still demanding an end to U.S. reconnaissance flights along its territory and compensation for the incident.
U.S. officials say the Chinese pilot caused the collision by flying recklessly. The Pentagon insists such surveillance flights are legal and will be resumed.
Two engines and one of four propellers were damaged on the plane, about the size of a Boeing 737 commercial airliner. Its nose cone is missing and pieces of metal punctured parts of the fuselage.
U.S. officials say the crew managed to destroy much of the sensitive information and electronic eavesdropping equipment used to collect intelligence on China's military, but that China probably has gained some valuable insight.