President Bush yesterday warned that China's relationship with the United States will be "damaged" if 24 American hostages are not freed soon from a military base where they have been detained for more than a week.
"Diplomacy takes time," Mr. Bush told reporters at a Cabinet meeting. "But there is a point - the longer it goes - there's a point at which our relations with China could become damaged."
China appeared unfazed as a government official reiterated Beijing's demands last night and dismissed the U.S. words so far as "unacceptable."
"Where is the responsibility? I think it's very clear," said Zhu Bangzao, a senior Foreign Ministry official traveling with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Argentina. "The pronouncements of the United States are unacceptable to the Chinese people. We are highly unsatisfied."
"The United States should apologize and respond appropriately," Mr. Zhu said at a Buenos Aires news conference. "If they don't, it's going to make things difficult."
The Bush administration, after initially taking a tough stance and then trying to assuage the Chinese with words like "sorry" and "regret," reverted to tough talk again yesterday.
"Every day that goes by increases the potential that our relations with China could be damaged," said Mr. Bush, repeating his point for emphasis. "It is now time for our troops to come home so that our relationship does not become damaged."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "the damage seen so far is reversible," suggesting the next step will not be.
But the administration refused to say
what that next step might be or when it might be taken. It has been nine days since a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in international waters and had to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island.
"So long as the talks are ongoing and it remains as sensitive as it does, I'm going to refrain from getting into any of the specific steps," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "I do not think it would be productive to go down any of the items that could get damaged."
However, Mr. Fleischer signaled that punitive measures under consideration would cover the topics Mr. Bush discussed with Chinese Vice Prime Minister Qian Qichen at the White House on March 22.
The two leaders discussed trade, human rights, religious freedom, the president's planned visit to Beijing in October and China's desire for acceptance in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
They also discussed the sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan and American plans for a missile defense system that would extend to U.S. allies around the globe. China vociferously opposes both measures.
"Nothing we do is a threat to you, and I want you to tell that to your leadership," Mr. Bush told Mr. Qian in the meeting, according to a senior administration official.
Mr. Qian listened politely, but made no reply.
"They did talk about so many of the positive aspects of the United States-Chinese relations," Mr. Fleischer said yesterday. "It was one after another, all the positive, productive things that are under way between the United States and China.
"From the president's point of view, if this continues, so much of the good they talked about can go wrong, or will go wrong, and he wants to avoid that," he added.
Meanwhile, a commercial satellite image, released yesterday by SpaceImaging.com, showed the EP-3E parked on the Hainan airfield next to a long line of military-type trucks, raising fresh questions about China's actions regarding the plane and its sophisticated surveillance equipment.
"We continue to not have an understanding of what the Chinese are doing with the plane," said one U. …