The United States and China have agreed to a deal "in principle" that would ship the damaged US Navy spy plane EP-3 home aboard a commercial cargo aircraft, officials from both sides said on May 28.
However, the sides were "still working on the details and modalities," said a spokesman for the National Security Council. It was not yet known when the plane would leave or where it would be shipped to, the spokesman said, and added that discussions were ongoing.
Earlier On May 28, a spokesman from China's foreign ministry said it would allow the United States "in principle" to send a Russian Antonov-124 to pick up the EP-3 advanced surveillance plane.
But Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao did not disclose when the two sides agreed to the deal.
The announcement may signal the end of painstaking negotiations to end the standoff over the spy plane, which has been grounded at a Chinese air base on Hainan Island since April 1, when it collided with a Chinese fighter jet above the South China Sea.
American officials have repeatedly said they want to repair the plane and fly it away, fearing that if it was dismantled, it would likely prevent the plane from being returned to duty.
China repeatedly rejected the idea - even though visiting US technicians said the plane is possible to refly after a two-week-long repairing. Zhu Bangzao has once and again said flying the plane out would be "impossible".
The ABC News in its latest online edition quoted some analysts as saying that by dismantling the plane, China would be able to humble the U.S. military and appease a "fiercely nationalistic public", who are outraged by an incident that killed a Chinese fighter pilot and the trouble-causing spy plane landing on a Chinese military airport without permission.
Using a cargo plane to take out the EP-3E, which is about the size of a Boeing 737 passenger jet, may be a suitable compromise for both Washington and Beijing, the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News reported.
At a press conference on Friday, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said his first choice would be to have the plane repaired and flown off Hainan Island.
He also said: "The next choice is to disassemble it as little as possible. And that is to say you'd probably take the wings off and send a very large cargo plane in, put the fuselage in and then the wings either in that fuselage or in another one, and lift it out, so that it would - could be then reassembled."
Last week, U.S. officials said they were looking at what was available in the charter market, but said some Chinese officials questioned whether the airfield on Hainan Island could accommodate such a large plane.
"There's an issue as I understand it as to whether or not that runway would take the weight of a cargo plane that large," Rumsfeld said. "And the technical teams are discussing these things now, and that's the current status."
Officials said the Chinese were amenable to a smaller plane - but that would involve further dismantling the plane to make it fit.