WASHINGTON – American negotiators will press for prompt return of a detained Navy surveillance plane and discuss causes of its collision with a Chinese fighter jet when they meet with Chinese officials Wednesday in Beijing.
The Bush administration ventured no prediction Monday on the outcome of the talks. But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Chinese government advised Washington "they intend to take a nonpolemical and straightforward approach" to the meeting.
"We look forward to that," Boucher said.
"We have made quite clear that we think that a productive meeting can set the basis for our further relationship. On the other hand, a polemical meeting would give us some indication of how they might or might not intend to proceed with the relationship," he said.
The U.S. delegation will insist on prompt return of the plane and discuss what caused the incident and how to avoid future collisions, Boucher said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters: "You can expect some forthright conversations about those flights and about what took place."
The EP-3E aircraft was seized by Chinese authorities after it made an emergency landing April 1 on Hainan island in southern China. The crew was released last week after protracted negotiations during which the administration said it was "very sorry" that the Chinese pilot was lost and the crippled plane made an emergency landing without permission.
There have been no U.S. surveillance flights since, but White House and State Department officials said they would be resumed. President Bush is awaiting a recommendation from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on the flights, Fleischer said.
"The United States will always reserve the right to operate over international waters and international airspace to protect the needs of our neighbors, promote regional stability and secure peace, which is why our nation and many other nations fly reconnaissance missions," he said.
China has insisted the flights be stopped and has challenged the American crew's version of the collision. The Americans said their plane was bumped by the Chinese fighter jet, while Chinese authorities say the U.S. aircraft swerved into its fighter's path.
With U.S.-Chinese relations headed toward their lowest point since the bloody Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, several members of Congress have asked Bush to cancel tentative plans to visit Beijing in October. "Relations cannot continue on the current basis," Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said Sunday.
Also, opposition is rising toward renewing normal trade relations with China, as is support for providing Taiwan with powerful weapons.
A delegation from Taiwan is due April 24 in Washington, Boucher said.
A decision by Bush on the weapons sale is expected by the end of the month. Among weapons under consideration are four top-of-the-line Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with modern Aegis battle management systems.
"The question of selling arms to Taiwan is a separate topic, separate subject," Fleischer said.
The U.S. delegation to Beijing is headed by Peter Verga, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy support, and includes James Keith, director of the Office of Chinese Affairs at the State Department, and Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, U.S. defense attache in Beijing, but not Joseph Prueher, a retired admiral who is U.S. ambassador to China.
Boucher said he did not know "for sure" how many meetings would be held. "It could be a couple of days," he said.
A joint commission established three years ago to improve air and maritime safety is to convene next Monday in San Francisco and could become a forum for a tense airing of differences.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials said Defense Secretary Rumsfeld may recommend resuming the reconnaissance flights as early as Thursday and probably will not prescribe fighter jet escorts.
The Washington Post reported Monday that the Pentagon was considering using fighters from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk to escort future EP-3E flights off China's coast. The Kitty Hawk currently is east of the Philippines and headed toward Guam, officials said. Its home port is Yokosuka, Japan.