BEIJING (AP) -- China said Thursday that the United States can take back its stranded U.S. Navy spy plane -- in pieces.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the two sides were discussing details and dates for the return of the plane, stranded at an air base on the southern island of Hainan since a collision April 1 with a Chinese fighter jet. Zhu Bangzao said talks included whether the pieces of the $80 million aircraft would be sent home by cargo plane or ship.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it couldn't confirm that Washington had agreed to dismantle the aircraft. It said the two sides were still discussing the fate of the EP-3E Aries II.
"We don't want to speculate about possible arrangements for return of the aircraft," said an embassy spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
Visiting U.S. technicians who examined the plane said it could be made airworthy. But China has repeatedly insisted that the plane not fly home.
"We do not agree to flying this plane out of China. That is impossible," Zhu said at a twice-weekly briefing for reporters.
The collision, which killed the Chinese fighter pilot, plunged relations between Beijing and Washington to their lowest level since NATO bombed China's embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 during the air war over Kosovo.
The 24 crew members of the EP-3E were held for 11 days while China demanded that Washington apologize for the collision.
The collision was one of several incidents that have strained U.S.-China ties.
Most recently, President Bush met Wednesday with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled leader, despite Beijing's protests. Two days before that, Taiwan's president visited New York over Chinese objections.
China views the Dalai Lama as a supporter of Tibetan independence from Chinese rule of the Himalayan region.
Zhu on Thursday criticized the Bush administration for "breaking its commitments" not to have diplomatic contacts with Taiwan.
"The new U.S. administration has gone back on its word," Zhu said. He cited Bush's decision last month to sell submarines, destroyers and aircraft to Taiwan.
By removing one of the biggest thorns in the side of American ties with China, the agreement to return the spy plane may signal resolve by both sides to halt the downward spiral in relations.
But a desire by China's government not to been seen as bowing to U.S. pressure may have dragged out the talks over the plane's return.
"There is a genuine nationalism that China's leaders must pay attention to," said Jin Canrong, an expert on U.S. affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The leadership doesn't want to appear weak-kneed.
"But it's important to remember that most of China wants good ties with the United States. Most of the leadership wants good ties with the United States," Jin said.
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