London (CNSNews.com) - American diplomats Monday sought access to a grounded U.S. Navy surveillance plane and its 24-person crew, which landed on a southern Chinese island Sunday after an incident involving two Chinese fighter planes.
Washington and Beijing exchanged accusations about who was to blame after the U.S. EP-3 plane was in a collision with one of the Chinese F-8s, which subsequently crashed into the South China Sea. The Chinese are searching for the missing pilot.
The American plane issued a "mayday" signal before landing at a Chinese airbase on Hainan Island.
U.S. officials have been unable to make contact with the crew, although Ambassador Adm. Joseph Prueher said he had been assured the crewmembers were safe.
Two military attaches from the embassy in Beijing joined a third official from a U.S. consulate in southern China Monday on a mission to win the crew's release.
U.S. military officials earlier warned China not to "seize, board or inspect" the EP-3, which contains highly-sensitive electronic equipment.
"We expect that the [People's Republic of China] government will respect the integrity of the aircraft and the well-being and safety of the crew in accordance with international practices, expedite any necessary repairs to the aircraft, and facilitate the immediate return of the aircraft and crew," U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement issued in Honolulu.
The Chinese fighters had apparently been dispatched for a routine interception of the EP-3, a slow-moving, propeller aircraft on what Pacific Command called a "routine surveillance mission" from an airbase in Okinawa, Japan.
The People's Daily Monday quotes Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao as saying it was normal and in accordance with international practice for Chinese jets to track the U.S. surveillance plane over China's water areas.
Zhu charged that the EP-3 had "veered" into the fighter, hitting it with its nose and wing. Beijing also complained that the plane had entered Chinese air space and landed without permission.
At a press briefing in Hawaii, the head of Pacific Command, Adm. Dennis Blair, said the incident had occurred in international airspace, 70 miles off Hainan.
It was his guess that the F-8 had bumped into the wing the American plane accidentally. Blair explained that the EP-3, about the size of a Boeing 737, was a slow-moving aircraft, "chugging along," and capable of only about half the speed of the Chinese fighters.
"The faster, more maneuverable aircraft has the obligation to stay out of the way of the slower aircraft. Our aircraft fly routinely straight and level. It's pretty obvious as to who bumped into whom."
Blair said Chinese interceptions were routine - "they come up, take a look, report what they see, and fly back" - but that the interceptions in recent months had become more "aggressive."
The U.S. had filed a working-level complaint, he said, telling the Chinese that their pilots' conduct was threatening safety.
Blair said had the situation been reversed and a Chinese aircraft had found itself in a similar situation off Hawaii, the U.S. military would have helped.
"We would have talked it in, had a crash crew out on the ramp in case it had trouble, and then would have provided assistance to the crew of that aircraft to get in touch with their home base or their government ...
"We would have assisted any members of the crew who were hurt. We would have respected the immunity of the aircraft. We would have gotten the crew in touch with its home base, and we would have made arrangements with that country to come in, fix the aircraft and get it back on its way. That's what the international obligations of all of us are in situations like this."
'Open fire' warning
One media report from Taiwan said the American crew had issued the warning signal and prepared to land after one of the Chinese aircraft had signaled it was likely to open fire.
The ETT television report said radio communication between the U.S. and Chinese planes was intercepted by Taiwanese intelligence officials.
The dialogue showed that the Chinese pilots indicated they were "extremely likely" to open fire. This had prompted the Americans to issue the "mayday" call and prepare to land.
It was only then that the Chinese plane had clipped the EP-3, it said.
The intelligence officials said the crew on one of the F-8s had been delighted when the U.S. plane went down, but had then heard that the other fighter had crashed, and the elation evaporated.
Taiwan's Deputy Defense Minister Kao Yang was quoted as telling lawmakers that the incident could benefit Taiwan. If China and the U.S. adopted a hard-line approach, the standoff would probably boost Taiwan's chances of getting sophisticated military equipment from Washington.
The U.S. this month will decide whether to agree to Taiwan's request to buy the advanced Aegis radar system. China is bitterly opposed to the sale, which it says will encourage independence-minded elements in Taiwan.
According to the Federation of American Scientists the EP-3 uses state-of-the-art equipment for its surveillance and electronic warfare mission.
Its normal crew complement of 24 comprises seven officers and 17 enlisted personnel, typically with three pilots, one navigator, three tactical evaluators, and one flight engineer. The rest are equipment operators, technicians, and mechanics.
It's reported that 22 Navy personnel and one each from the Marines and Air Force manned the grounded plane.