The dismantled U.S. EP-3 spy plane held on China's Hainan Island since April was flown out to the United States today, the U.S. Pacific Command said.
The departure of the EP-3 more than a week ahead of schedule removes a major impediment to improving U.S.-China relations.
"The final flight of the AN-124 carrying the EP-3 departed Lingshui at 4:45 a.m. EST," the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command Web site said.
Lingshui is the Chinese air base where the EP-3 was held since April 1, when it made an emergency landing after colliding with an intercepting Chinese fighter jet.
China held the 24-member EP-3 crew for 11 days after the collision in a standoff that roiled U.S.-China relations in the first months of the Bush administration.
It released them only after Washington said it was "very sorry" for the death of the Chinese pilot and for the spy plane's landing on Hainan without permission. China declared the lost pilot, Wang Wei, a revolutionary martyr.
Plane Bound for Georgia
The U.S. Pacific Command Web site, said the giant Antonov cargo plane would land in Manila — where control tower officials said it would spend five hours — and Honolulu en route to Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga.
The 12-strong American recovery team was expected to leave Hainan on Wednesday and arrive in Hawaii at 6:30 p.m. ET the same day, it said.
The technicians went to work dismantling the plane only after talks on removing the plane had dragged on amid a series of other disputes, including one over a U.S. pledge of arms sales to Taiwan — which China considers part of its sovereign territory.
The United States had originally intended to repair the plane and fly it out.
China, demanding an end to U.S. spy flights off its coast, said allowing the plane to fly off Hainan would be a national humiliation.
Beijing eventually agreed to let the plane be dismantled and flown out.
Powell and Tang to Meet
U.S.-China ties remain strained over issues ranging from human rights to China's arrest of several U.S.-affiliated Chinese academics to U.S. plans to build an anti-missile shield.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan promised Secretary of State Colin Powell in a telephone call to boost bilateral relations after the recent troubles.
Tang told Powell he looked forward to meeting on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian meeting in Hanoi at the end of next month and welcomed a Powell visit to Beijing afterwards.
Tang told Powell China was preparing for the meeting between President Jiang Zemin and Bush in Shanghai and Bush's visit to Beijing in October.
Bush is slated to attend the annual informal summit of leaders of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Shanghai.
No date has been set for Powell's visit to Beijing.