U.S. officials warned on Sunday of damage to long-term relations with Beijing over the detention of 24 air crew as China's politically powerful military underscored a hard-line stance that risked prolonging the crisis.
With China insisting on a U.S. apology for the collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter and the United States continuing to refuse, the firm positions maintained a week-old standoff despite a diplomatic search for a solution.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said there was no evidence of U.S. responsibility for the crash over the South China Sea that left the Chinese pilot and his F-8 jet missing. The EP-3 surveillance plane made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island and has been detained since last Sunday.
"The relationship is being damaged," Powell told the "Fox News Sunday" program. "In order for the damage to be undone and for no further damage to occur, we've got to bring this matter to a close as soon as possible."
Powell said China and the United States were still in "intense negotiations" and "things are moving along" albeit more slowly than hoped toward ending the worst foreign relations crisis of the Bush administration.
Bringing the crew home appeared to hinge on finding the words in a letter being jointly drafted about last Sunday's crash that would allow a face-saving way out for Chinese President Jiang Zemin and U.S. President George W. Bush.
In a sign Washington was exploring ways to help appease Chinese sentiment, Bush planned to send a letter to the wife of the missing Chinese pilot, personally expressing his regret at the collision.
The pilot's wife Ruan Guoqin had accused Bush of cowardice in his handling of the incident.
BLAME AND RESPONSIBILITY
Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian said the United States would not be allowed to escape responsibility for the crash. The main military newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily, quoted him as saying the crash was "entirely caused by the U.S. side."
China "will not let them push the blame onto others," Chi said during a visit to the pilot's wife.
On Hainan Island, U.S. diplomats spent the day fruitlessly waiting for permission for a fourth meeting with the crew. The White House revealed that only eight of the crew, including the pilot, had been at the last meeting on Saturday.
"With regard to future access, we are still working hard for unfettered daily access to the crew and we asked to see them twice a day," Defense Attache Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock said.
In a sign the Chinese military could delay any quick resolution of the crisis, the Liberation Army Daily said Chinese authorities had the right to conduct "a full and thorough investigation of the entire incident, including those responsible on the U.S. military plane and the U.S. military plane itself."
It demanded that the United States halt all surveillance flights off China's coast.
TRADE VS MILITARY PAYBACK
Amid signs of a hardening line among U.S. lawmakers, Powell suggested that bilateral damage could extend to the lucrative trade front where Beijing risks losing additional votes to keep its favorable trading status.
Top Chinese leaders are anxious to avoid a meltdown in Chinese-U.S. ties, but any compromise they make would have to take into consideration the reaction of hawkish generals in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
Political analysts said it was likely that some factions in the PLA were keen to use the detained Americans to humiliate the United States as payback for a string of perceived insults and aggressive actions toward China.
China's military brass is still smarting from the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which Washington said was an accident.
The PLA is alarmed by the prospect of U.S. sales of high technology weapons to Taiwan and U.S. plans for a missile defense shield that would emasculate China's nuclear arsenal.
Defense Minister Chi was quoted by the army newspaper as saying the incident showed China needed to beef up its military to defend against "hegemonism," a code word for United States.
"We must turn our anger at hegemonism into tremendous motive force," Chi said during his visit to Ruan.