President George W. Bush demanded on Monday that Beijing grant the United States immediate access to the 24 crew members of a Navy spy plane held by China, and U.S. officials said they were troubled by Chinese foot-dragging on the matter.
Raising the diplomatic stakes in what has become his biggest foreign policy challenge since he took office on Jan. 20, Bush said China's refusal to let U.S. officials talk to the crew promptly was inconsistent with the desire of both countries for better relations.
"The first step should be immediate access by our embassy personnel to our crew members," Bush said in a brief appearance outside the White House Oval Office. "I am troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to our request for this access."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said China had offered to let U.S. consular officials visit the crew late on Tuesday night Chinese time but that was not soon enough.
"It's still troubling ... the lack of speed of their response," McClellan told reporters.
The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Dennis Blair, cited "encouraging words" with Chinese officials about U.S. Embassy officials' gaining access to the crew but declined to give an exact time for the meeting.
"The sooner the better," Blair told CNN.
WARNING ABOUT "TAMPERING"
Bush also demanded that China return the Navy EP-3 maritime patrol plane "without any further tampering" - revealing U.S. concern over the possibility that the plane's classified surveillance technology could fall into Chinese hands.
U.S. officials said the last communication from the plane's crew on Sunday indicated that armed Chinese soldiers were boarding the aircraft, raising concern about the security of one of the most technologically sophisticated U.S. surveillance planes.
Blair told CNN he did not know if Chinese officials had boarded the plane, but he emphasized that the Pentagon had strict procedures governing what was to be done with classified information and equipment if there was danger they could be compromised. He refused to give any details.
Crews are trained to destroy spy gear in such an incident, but defense officials said they did not know whether the plane's crew was able to do so.
Bush said the plane was on a routine mission in international airspace when it collided with one of two Chinese fighter jets shadowing it on Sunday. The plane made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island.
"Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering," he said. The White House said it had received assurances the crew was safe and receiving assistance.
The incident threatens to further strain U.S.-Chinese relations, already tense over the possible U.S. sale of sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.
And China's detention of a Chinese-born academic based in the United States and a Hong Kong-based American professor have deepened concern over China's human rights record.
Bush said U.S. Embassy personnel were on the ground and ready to visit the plane's crew as soon as permission was granted.
"Failure for the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice and with the express desire of both our countries for better relations," Bush said.
He spoke after meeting with his national security team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. His comments were the first since he learned of the incident on Saturday night.
OFFER IS IGNORED
Bush offered U.S. search and rescue assistance to help the Chinese government locate its missing aircraft and pilot, but Pentagon officials said China had expressed no interest in the offer.
Asked whether the incident presented a serious threat to U.S.-China relations, U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said: "I don't think I'd call it a serious threat. Right now it's not resolved. We have to wait and see how it's handled."
She declined to comment on whether the United States considered the crew members detained against their will.
A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command said earlier the aircraft was U.S. territory. "The Chinese are not to seize, inspect or board it without U.S. permission," Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly said.
The United States decided late on Monday to order three warships in the South China Sea region to move out of the area, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday. "The ships have been released to proceed on duties as assigned," he said.
Earlier, a defense official had said the three destroyers were lingering in the region to "monitor the situation."
China issued an angry statement saying its jet had crashed after being rammed by the U.S. aircraft, and rescuers were still searching for the missing Chinese pilot.
Blair said the crash was probably caused by the fighter's bumping into the U.S. plane and had been an accident waiting to happen because of the "aggressive" tactics of Chinese pilots.
The United States said Chinese fighter planes had been conducting intercepts in an unsafe manner in recent months and this time one of them had bumped the wing of the EP-3.
Countryman said the United States considered the incident, which occurred in international airspace over the South China Sea about 70 miles (113 km) off Hainan, to be an accident.
If the damage was relatively minor, the plane could probably be repaired within a day or two, Kelly said.