China and the United States have wrapped up an agreement on the return of an American spy plane stuck for more than two months on southern Hainan island, bringing to an end one of the worst confrontations to bedevil the two countries in recent years.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi told reporters Thursday that negotiations had concluded on dismantling the Navy EP-3 and sending it home. Four technicians from the U.S. have spent the past week in the Chinese capital hashing out the details of how to disassemble and transport the damaged $80-million aircraft.
The agreement lays to rest the outstanding issue in the diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Washington that ensued when the EP-3 and a Chinese fighter jet collided in the air April 1 off the southern Chinese coast. The American craft made an emergency landing on Hainan, where its 24-member crew was detained for 11 days. The pilot of the Chinese craft was lost at sea and declared dead.
"China and the United States have basically solved the matter of the plane, both the crew and the aircraft," Sun said, adding that "we hope bilateral relations can come back to the normal track."
The EP-3 has been sitting on a military airstrip since its emergency landing. U.S. officials say the plane's electronic surveillance equipment--so sophisticated that it can pick up fax and e-mail transmissions--has been thoroughly examined and pilfered by the Chinese military. Washington had hoped that the plane could be repaired and flown out under its own power, but the Communist regime adamantly rejected that course of action, which many in China would find humiliating.
The most likely scenario now is for the EP-3, which is the size of a Boeing 737, to be taken apart, packed up and loaded onto a chartered Soviet-made Antonov-124 cargo plane.
Exactly when the EP-3 will make its journey is unclear, but the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said the four technicians will remain until the plane is removed, raising hopes that the shipment could occur soon.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said work on dismantling the plane is expected to start next week. It will take several weeks to complete the operation.
"We will disassemble the aircraft into four major components: two wings, the fuselage and the tail assembly," Quigley said. He said it is a tricky maneuver but one that the Navy has performed in the past when it moved a mothballed P-3 anti-submarine aircraft to the factory to be converted into an EP-3.
"Ultimately, the components would be refurbished, the plane would be reassembled, and it would go back into regular use," Quigley said.
The spy plane's unexpected landing on Hainan while conducting a reconnaissance mission put the worst strain on Sino-U.S. ties in two years. U.S. defense officials lay blame for the accident on the downed Chinese pilot, who reportedly had a history of reckless flying. The Chinese government maintains that the slower-moving EP-3 suddenly swerved into the path of the fighter jet.
The U.S. crew was released from detention only after Washington agreed to say it was "very sorry" for the incident, which Beijing insisted was an affront to Chinese sovereignty.
Since then, relations between the two powers have suffered further from proposed U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and a downgrading of military ties between the U.S. and China.
Still, President Bush last week said he will recommend that normal trade relations between the two sides be extended. And Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, in a speech given this week at his alma mater, Qinghua University in Beijing, said Sino-U.S. relations are in a "sensitive period" but will remain relatively stable.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.