WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House's top foreign policy lawmaker suggested Monday that China might be holding the flight crew of a crippled U.S. spy plane to gain leverage against an imminent sale of American arms to Taiwan.

If that's China's intent, said Rep. Henry Hyde, it won't work.

``Are we to assume that all of these individuals are now considered hostages? I don't know, and I certainly hope not,'' said Hyde, R-Ill, chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

``But if they are, the Beijing government is terribly mistaken if it believes these actions will influence the U.S. decision to permit the sale of defensive weapons to Taiwan.''

Bush will soon decide what kind of arms package to approve for Taiwan, administration officials said. It is a major presidential decision that comes each April.

Taiwan is seeking an arsenal of high-tech military hardware to counter an apparently growing missile threat from the mainland. At the top of Taiwan's wish list are four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, priced at more than $1.2 billion apiece, which are equipped with missiles and radar systems that can simultaneously track more than 200 targets.

China adamantly opposes the sale.

Other lawmakers also joined President Bush in demanding the immediate return of the 24-person crew of a Navy EP3 intelligence-gathering plane that landed on China's Hainan Island after a collision with a Chinese jet fighter. The fighter crashed, and its pilot is missing.

``Our relationship with China will be dramatically affected on a variety of fronts if this crisis is not resolved expeditiously,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former naval aviator and prisoner of war in Vietnam. ``At a time when Washington is considering Taiwan's annual arms sales request, the Chinese leadership must understand that such actions raise serious concerns.''

Just last week, Hyde's committee passed a nonbinding resolution urging the International Olympics Committee not to consider China's request to stage the 2008 Games. ``We're watching the situation very carefully, and we are concerned about the safety of the American soldiers currently being held,'' said Matt Gobush, spokesman for Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif, the committee's top Democrat. ``We join President Bush in calling for their immediate release.''

Information is still being gathered, so some lawmakers are being careful about what they say, officials said. ``I think people are being very careful not to get ahead of themselves,'' said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., a sponsor of the Olympics bill.

But others jumped right in.

``Given the mountain of evidence that China violates its own citizens' human rights, engages in an aggressive military policy designed to intimidate their neighbors and refuses to adhere to treaties or covenants, why should we be surprised when they openly flout international law by boarding our planes and holding American military personnel in isolation?'' said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., vice chairman of Hyde's committee.

Republicans, as they cheered Bush's hard line on return of the plane and its crew, pointed to the incident as evidence that the Clinton administration was wrong in its treatment of the Asian country.

``This latest military crisis with the Chinese government represents the fruits of President Clinton's failed strategic partnership with the Chinese communist dictatorship,'' said Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

``We have to remember that China is not our strategic partner, as Clinton told us,'' added Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence. ``China is a competitor and could be an adversary someday. I hope not, but they could be.''

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On the Net: Pacific Command Web site on incident: http://www.pacom.mil/