The Chinese have got to act," Bush said. "I hope they do so quickly."
China called the 24-person crew lawbreakers and said the servicemen and women would remain in China for questioning.
Both countries held firm to their opposing positions in public - China demanding an apology, Bush refusing to offer one - but sent encouraging signals in a diplomatic flurry. The administration's tone brightened as weary Bush advisers embraced the first notes of progress.
In Santiago, Chile, visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin again said the United States should apologize for last weekend's collision. "I have visited many countries, and I see that when people have an accident, the two groups involved, the two parts, always say excuse me," Jiang said.
Several high-ranking government officials said the situation improved practically over-night, though they still had no assurances the crew of 21 men and three women would be released.
While most Americans slept, Bush's team worked on China time Thursday morning to open new channels of communications with Beijing. The talks continued as dawn made its way around the globe: Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi met with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in Washington; U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher met twice with Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong in China.
"We're having intensive discussions with the Chinese," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Frustrated for days by the lack of talks, American diplomats were suddenly negotiating with Chinese counterparts over U.S. demands for the crew's release. "We're talking about what we want to talk about, which is release," said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet, forcing the American crew into an emergency landing on Hainan island in the South China Sea. The crew is being questioned and detained. The plane and its sensitive equipment are in China's hands.
The Chinese pilot, presumed dead, was blamed for the crash by Bush's allies in Congress. They called the pilot a "hot-dog" and accused him of buzzing the lumbering spy plane under standing orders by Beijing.
Bush was more conciliatory in a statement calculated to show sympathy without bowing to China's demands for an apology. "I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret one of their airplanes is lost, and our prayers go out to the pilot, his family," Bush told the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
In using the word "regret," Bush followed the language used by Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials Wednesday in hopes of softening China's stance.
China welcomed the American expressions but stuck with its demand for an apology, displaying the same mixture of encouragement and toughness Bush sought to show.
"The regret expressed by the U.S. side is a step in the right direction to solving this question," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi before Bush spoke. The next step, Sun said, is for the United States to "admit its mistakes and make a formal apology."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer reiterated that no apology was forthcoming.
In another display of firmness, the spokesman suggested that Bush's support of free trade relations with China will depend on the outcome of the standoff. Bush himself told the newspaper editors that he backs China's wishes to join the World Trade Organization, but he added: "I'm hopeful that the current situation ends quickly."
On Capitol Hill, fans and foes of China's new normal trade status said Congress shouldn't rush to punish Beijing