WASHINGTON - President Bush took a stern stance toward China yesterday as he welcomed home the crew of the U.S. spy plane from Hainan island, saying the United States was blameless in the incident and suggesting that Beijing's conduct had not helped relations between the two nations.
"From all the evidence we have seen, the United States aircraft was operating in international airspace, in full accordance with all laws, procedures and regulations, and did nothing to cause the accident," Bush said outside the White House. "The kind of incident we have just been through does not advance a constructive relationship."
The president had watched television broadcasts of the military plane carrying the 21 men and three women land at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
The crew, greeted by applause from military colleagues and bused to lodging at Pearl Harbor, was scheduled to go through two days of intensive debriefing after being held in China for 11 days. Tomorrow, they are to return to their home base at Whidbey Island, Wash., in time to spend Easter with their families.
"I know I speak for all Americans when I say, 'Welcome home' to our flight crew," Bush said. "They represent the best of American patriotism and service to our country."
Bush's comments on China offered a possible preview of his posture toward Beijing in the wake of the confrontation.
The standoff began April 1, after a collision between the U.S. plane and a Chinese jet fighter that was closely tracking it. The Chinese plane plunged into the ocean, and its pilot is presumed dead. The badly damaged American plane managed to land on China's Hainan island, where its crew was held while Beijing demanded an apology for what it said was U.S. responsibility for the collision.
Washington refused to apologize, blaming a reckless Chinese pilot for causing the crash by flying too close and clipping the American plane's wing. Ultimately, China released the crew after Washington issued a statement saying the United States was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot and for landing on Hainan without permission.
Yesterday, Bush noted the "common interests" of the two countries, particularly "the importance of trade" and the desire "to increase prosperity for our citizens." When disagreements arise, Bush said, "I will approach our differences in a spirit of respect."
But the president stressed such differences between the two nations - over the airborne collision, over China's aggressive tailing of U.S. reconnaissance planes, over China's treatment of its dissidents and free spirits.
"We disagree on important basic issues, such as human rights and religious freedom," Bush said. "At times, we have different views about the path to a more stable and secure Asia-Pacific region. I will always stand squarely for American interests and American values."
Events could preclude Washington's relationship with Beijing from getting back on an even keel anytime soon. On Wednesday, the United States introduced a resolution before the United Nations Human Rights Commission criticizing China's repression of Tibetans, political dissidents and the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Congressional conservatives, who were largely silent while the U.S. crew was being held, are expected to condemn China after Congress reconvenes April 23.
In particular, some congressional hawks are expected to lobby against renewing China's favored trade status with the United States. Congress probably will be able to vote again on whether to grant normal trade status to Beijing, because China has not received final approval to join the World Trade Organization - a condition for ending the yearly votes.
"This incident calls into question our current policy of sending American trade dollars to a nation that has displayed signs of hostility toward the U.S.," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is sponsoring legislation to revoke China's favored trade status. "Every American, in government and out, should ask themselves if it is in our national interest."
Thanks in part to support from U.S. corporations, analysts expect any move to revoke China's favored trade status to fail. Even so, congressional debate over the issue could antagonize Beijing.
Congressional conservatives are pressing the Bush administration to approve the sale of sophisticated weapons to Taiwan, which Beijing fiercely opposes.
"The increase in tension and concern about the regime in Beijing will take an idea that was already popular and make it even more so," predicted Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "It certainly means China will have a much harder time making its case against the sale of those military assets."
Other issues likely to cause friction between the two nations are Bush's desire to build a missile defense system, which China fears would negate its nuclear capability; China's desire for the 2008 Summer Olympics to be held in Beijing, and China's demand for an end to U.S. spy flights in international airspace near its coast.
The president made clear yesterday that he would not end such flights, and he repeated the charge that Chinese pilots had been recklessly aggressive in shadowing U.S. intelligence-gathering planes in recent months.
"I will ask our United States representative to ask the tough question about China's recent practice of challenging United States aircraft operating legally in international airspace," Bush said.
The aircrew's arrival in Hawaii followed a change of planes at Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. territory of Guam. At Andersen, they leaned out bus windows to shake hands with onlookers, made phone calls and were fed a hot meal of steak and potatoes during their stay of several hours.
At a welcoming ceremony at Hickam, Lt. Shane Osborn, the plane's pilot, said: "We're definitely glad to be back." He said the crew members were "healthy and ready to get back home" and thankful for the support they had received.
As part of the deal that led to the crew's release, U.S. and Chinese officials will meet Wednesday in San Francisco to discuss the collision and ways to avoid similar incidents.
"The incident has not been fully settled," President Jiang Zemin was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua News Agency. "We hope that the U.S. side will adopt a serious attitude toward China's standpoint on the incident and handle it properly."
Zhang Qiyue, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Beijing might seek compensation for its lost pilot and jet fighter.
Zhang said China had not decided whether to return the $100 million spy plane, one of the most sophisticated U.S. intelligence-gathering aircraft. And she refused to disclose whether it had been inspected and stripped of its equipment, as U.S. officials believe.
In Beijing, Premier Zhu Rongji told visiting U.N. General Assembly President Harri Holkeri that "all responsibilities for the incident lie with the U.S. side."
Sun staff writer Karen Hosler and wire services contributed to this article.