U.S. surveillance flights resumed off China's northeast coast

Monday, May 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON - An Air Force plane today flew the first U.S. reconnaissance flight off China's coast since the April 1 collision between a Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, a U.S. defense official said.

The RC-135 reconnaissance plane, flying from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, flew a routine track along the northern portion of China's coastline, the official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

The unarmed Air Force plane, which is used routinely for surveillance flights off China's coast, drew no response from the Chinese military, the official said. No Chinese fighters intercepted the plane, which completed its daylight mission Monday and returned to Kadena Air Base.

The Bush administration had said it intended to resume surveillance flights off China's coast, but Monday's was the first since the Navy EP-3E Aries II plane collided with a Chinese fighter over the South China Sea last month and was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan island.

The pilot of the Chinese jet was lost in the collision and the 24 crew members of the EP-3E were held by on Hainan for 11 days. The U.S. plane was badly damaged in the incident and officials say the Chinese likely harvested valuable intelligence from the craft, although the crew apparently managed to destroy the most sensitive information.

Monday's RC-135 mission was not escorted by U.S. fighter jets, the defense official said. Such escorts normally are not used, but some in the administration had raised the possibility in light of concern that China would resist further U.S. surveillance.

China has demanded an end to surveillance flights off its coast.

The RC-135, like the Navy's EP-3E, is equipped to collect electronic signals and is used off China to monitor Chinese military communications and activities. It operates with a crew of up to 27 people, including three pilots, two navigators, three electronic warfare officers, 14 intelligence operators and others.

Chinese fighters frequently intercept U.S. surveillance flights off the coast, although it is more common – and done in a more aggressive fashion – on the more southerly routes flown by the Navy EP-3E aircraft.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday that he believed China would allow the United States to get the EP-3E back, and he said it appeared that the plane could be repaired sufficiently on Hainan to fly it out. "We'll know later this week," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

A U.S. defense official said Monday the Lockheed Martin technicians who inspected the plane last week determined that it could be repaired, but that it probably would take several days.

President Bush is expected to make the final decision on whether to press China for permission to repair it. An alternative would be to partially disassemble the plane and ship it out.

The collision last month heightened tensions between the United States and China.

Rumsfeld said Sunday he accepts the blame for confusion last week from a Pentagon memo that mistakenly called for suspension of all U.S. military contacts with China.

"There's no question that I made a mistake. A mistake was made," Rumsfeld told CBS' "Face the Nation." "To the extent there's any fault ... to be assigned, it's certainly as much mine as anyone else's, and I'm in charge."

The memo from Rumsfeld's office to senior Pentagon officials said the secretary had directed "the suspension of all Department of Defense programs, contacts and activities with the People's Republic of China until further notice."

Hours after the memo was leaked and reported worldwide, a spokesman for Rumsfeld said the memo was a mistake and that an aide had gotten it wrong.

Rumsfeld said Sunday that after the plane collision, he barred U.S. military aircraft and ships from visiting China and limited all social contacts. "We are reviewing all of the things that we are doing" on a case-by-case basis, he said.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told "Fox News Sunday" that Bush believes a "productive and fruitful relationship with China" is possible. But she added: "Clearly, the way that the Chinese handle the fact that we have a plane on the ground will have an effect on how we see U.S.-China relations."

Last week, China criticized Bush's proposal for a national missile defense program, insisting it could spark a new arms race.

Bush said the United States would work with its allies and seek to protect them as well from ballistic missile attacks from rogue nations.

Three prominent Democrats – House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota – said Sunday that such a program could be seen as a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

"I think that's another major concern, and then obviously losing our relationship with our allies, and fracturing the very fragile relationship with China are also issues we've got to be very concerned about," Daschle told ABC's "This Week."

But Rice said the treaty "belongs to another era, when we had an implacably hostile relationship with the Soviet Union."