PENTAGON will review, but not suspend, contacts with China

Thursday, May 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon further complicated an already tense relationship with China by first stating that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had suspended all contacts with the Chinese military and then retracting the statement, which it called a misunderstanding.

On Monday an official memorandum from Rumsfeld's office to senior military and civilian officials in the Pentagon said he 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 leaked on Wednesday and was reported worldwide by U.S. news organizations, a spokesman for Rumsfeld, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said the memo was a mistake. In the interim, Quigley and other officials had struggled to explain the move, which also appeared to catch the White House by surprise.

Upon hearing about Rumsfeld's memo, White House officials called the Pentagon and said ``it sounds inconsistent with the secretary's policy,'' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. The spokesman would not reveal which officials, or how many of them, made the calls.

Acknowledging the rocky U.S.-Chinese relationship, Secretary of State Colin Powell told lawmakers at a hearing Thursday that after a difficult month, the administration ``is anxious to get the relationship back on an even keel.''

Quigley told reporters that the Rumsfeld aide who wrote the memo had ``misinterpreted the secretary's intentions'' by declaring a suspension of military-to-military relations.

``His actual intention is for all elements of the military-to-military program to be reviewed and approved on a case by case basis by the Department of Defense,'' Quigley said several hours after the memo was leaked to reporters.

Quigley declined to say who wrote the memo. He said Rumsfeld had not seen it before it was sent to the military service secretaries, the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior civilian officials in the Pentagon.

Several officials told reporters that the order took effect Monday, the day it was distributed inside the Pentagon. Later, Quigley said that a corrected version would be sent to make clear that military-to-military ties were not suspended.

Monday's memo was quite detailed. It said Rumsfeld had directed that defense attaches abroad be permitted to attend social functions, as part of their usual activities, in which Chinese officials may be present. But there were to be no Pentagon contacts with Chinese diplomatic representatives in Washington, it said.

The confusion over the future of U.S.-Chinese military relations became public on the day that a team of U.S. civilian defense contractors in China began assessing what would be required to return the Navy surveillance plane that made an emergency landing at a military airfield on Hainan island on April 1 after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet.

The Lockheed Martin technicians spent about four hours aboard the Navy plane Wednesday to begin their assessment. When they returned Thursday they were unable to power up the EP-3E Aries II aircraft because the Chinese military did not provide the required support, a Pentagon official said. As a result the Americans planned to resume their work Friday instead of leaving, he said.

Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, said in an interview with USA Today that China's behavior following the collision between the Navy plane and the Chinese fighter ``leads us to believe that China is indeed a threat to the Asia-Pacific region.'' The remark could further annoy Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a rebellious province.

Chen confirmed his intention to visit the United States this month despite objections from communist China.

In a brief appearance before reporters earlier Wednesday before the internal memo leaked to the news media, Rumsfeld did not mention his intentions regarding military-to-military contacts with China.

He said it wasn't clear whether the Navy spy plane would be flown off the island or, alternatively, be disassembled and brought by ship or air.

``There's an assessment team on the ground at the present time,'' he said. ``We've received some reports back, but there's nothing conclusive on that point.''

Quigley said there were no military-to-military contacts with China scheduled for May, and the Pentagon had said previously it was going to reconsider how to proceed with contacts beyond this month.

U.S.-Chinese military relations have traveled a rocky road. The Pentagon broke off ties after the Chinese military's deadly 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, and contacts had just begun to grow again when they were halted in 1996 after China lobbed missiles toward Taiwan.

Beijing broke off military ties in early 1999 after U.S. planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia during NATO's campaign against Slobodan Milosevic. The Chinese never accepted the U.S. explanation that it was an accident, and didn't resume defense relations for several months.