The collision of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet has landed the Bush administration in the middle of one of Asia's touchiest subjects -- the diplomacy of apology.

For the Chinese government, extracting an apology from the United States represents an important diplomatic goal and a matter of "face" or respect. For the Bush administration, making an apology would be admitting guilt, humbling the White House in the eyes of Asian countries and among conservative Republicans who want the United States to stand up to China.

An apology would also carry legal weight, administration officials fear, with possible implications if China wanted to try the U.S. plane's pilot, or press for compensation, or wrangle an agreement that the United States would cease flying surveillance planes close to China's shores.

"I think there's a big difference," an administration official said. Regret for the loss of the Chinese pilot -- which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell expressed Wednesday and President Bush repeated yesterday -- "is fine. And apologizing is different."

The question of a U.S. apology has arisen repeatedly in the six-day-old standoff, and could make further compromise difficult. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin have made their positions clear, with little room for interpretation.

"We're playing with words, but that's what diplomacy is all about," said Stapleton Roy, a former U.S. ambassador to China. "To apologize would acknowledge wrongdoing, and there's no basis for that. On the other hand, the Chinese are unhappy about the loss of their plane and military person."

The diplomacy of apologies is a big issue in Asia. China is constantly demanding that Japan apologize for invading and committing atrocities during World War II, and China is constantly finding Japan's apologies insufficiently sincere.

Former president Bill Clinton, a master of apology, said America was sorry about the Vietnam War and the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. But, after objections by the Pentagon, Clinton refused to apologize for a massacre of South Korean civilians near the hamlet of No Gun Ri during the Korean War. His expression of regret avoided offending U.S. veterans but was condemned by South Korea as unsatisfactory.

Bush was ready to apologize for the accidental sinking of a Japanese fishing vessel by a U.S. submarine, but not for the accidental downing of a Chinese fighter jet by a U.S. surveillance plane.

"Face is an important element here," said David Shambaugh, professor of Chinese studies at George Washington University. "That is driving the Chinese position."

Another analyst, Richard Fisher of the Jamestown Foundation, saw Beijing's demand differently. He said China wanted Bush to "kowtow," which comes from the Chinese phrase for kneeling and touching one's head to the floor in submission.

But the United States also has strong legal reasons to avoid issuing the "full apology" China has demanded, international lawyers said yesterday.

Depending on the scope and wording of the apology, it might not only amount to an admission of wrongdoing but also create a legal norm that China could invoke to try to stop the United States from conducting coastal reconnaissance flights. Asia policy analysts say it would represent one small step for China toward pushing back the U.S. presence in Asia.

"An apology's not costless. It's not just a political gesture," said Peter Spiro, a professor of law at Hofstra University. "It's like pleading guilty. . . . It becomes a precedent."

A broad apology would break a chain of legal argumentation the United States has used for years to defend surveillance of China's forces arrayed against Taiwan. As long as the flights are in international airspace, Washington contends, they are legal and show no hostile intent.

The United States found itself in a similar position in 1970 and had the same concerns. Then, a U.S. military drone, or pilotless plane, was shot down over Hainan Island. China demanded an apology.

In a memorandum to the State Department, U.S. diplomat Harry E.T. Thayer argued at the time that "an apology in this case might also lead the Chinese to press us to take the next step of foreswearing such acts for the future."

In an effort to placate China without admitting guilt, the Bush administration is ready to express regret to China and sympathy to the widow of the missing pilot. "We continue to, as appropriate, express our regret on behalf of the American people for the loss of the Chinese pilot," said State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher. "Obviously, we sympathize with . . . the pilot's family."

"We can regret, for any number of reasons, that it happened or that it made the situation more difficult to manage," Roy said. Another person familiar with the administration's thinking said one can have regret for someone even if that person has engaged in reckless behavior.

"I can regret somebody getting injured without saying they weren't at fault," said the person familiar with the administration's view.

It is unclear, however, whether expressing regret means never having to say the United States is sorry.

In 1968, 11 months after North Korea seized a U.S. surveillance ship, the USS Pueblo, the United States gave in to North Korea's demands and apologized to obtain the release of the 82 crew members. Immediately after the crew was freed, the United States repudiated the apology.

Staff writer Charles Lane contributed to this report.The U.S. issued a statement of regret, not apology, for the loss of Chinese pilot Wang Wei.