HAIKOU, China, AFP
A team of U.S. technicians arrived on the southern mainland Chinese island of Hainan Tuesday on a mission to inspect a U.S. spy plane stranded in the mainland for a month, a U.S. embassy spokesman said.
The team arrived in a white corporate jet at Hainan’s Haikou airport amid tight security Tuesday evening. The passengers were collected by a convoy of cars and taken to customs.
The U.S. team, consisting of around five technicians from Lockheed Martin, a contractor for the EP-3 surveillance craft, was heading to Haikou on a chartered commercial plane, a U.S. embassy spokesman said earlier.
He said the team was unlikely to stay there as Haikou is located nearly 240 kilometers north of Lingshui air base where the EP-3 plane has been marooned since its April 1 midair collision with a mainland Chinese fighter jet.
The badly-damaged EP-3 made an emergency landing at Lingshui, near the city of Sanya, and its crew of 24 were detained by Chinese authorities for 11 days.
The team’s main task will be to go over the plane and possibly make plans for how the aircraft can best be transported from Hainan.
Defense officials from the U.S. embassy were on their way Tuesday from Beijing to meet the technicians in Hainan, the embassy official said.
U.S. military attache Brigadier General Neal Sealock, who played a high-profile role in securing the release of the EP-3 crew in early April, was not among the defense officials, he said.
The decision to let the team see the plane suggested that mainland Chinese politicians had taken over the handling of the issue from the military, which loomed larger right after the collision, according to analysts.
“This is a gesture that shows the Chinese government is looking for a way to reduce tensions after the accident,” said Paul Harris, an expert on U.S.-PRC relations at Hong Kong’s Lingnan College.
The U.S. side, on the other hand, mainly wants the plane back as a matter of principle to show other nations that if they get hold of a similar piece of U.S. hardware in the future, it will not be theirs to keep.
“They don’t want to set any precedent on this,” Harris said.