- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Chinas conduct during todays talks in Beijing over a U.S. surveillance plane will determine what measures the United States will take to protect the flights when they resume.
A Pentagon official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that if China continues to demand an end to the flights, an outcome the United States has ruled out, the Pentagon will then be forced to protect the EP-3Es, perhaps with fighter escorts.
But if China agrees the United States has a right to conduct surveillance missions in international airspace, the aircraft would likely deploy unescorted.
"If they acknowledge theres an issue of safety and they agree we can fly in international airspace, wed probably return to a normal approach," said one Pentagon official. "Its not a question of whether we resume the flights, its a question of when."
However, China yesterday reiterated its refusal to return the $80 million surveillance plane and stepped up its anti-American rhetoric as diplomatic talks between the two nations began in Beijing.
"We are continuing our investigation, and we are going to treat or manage the plane according to the law," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said.
In Beijing this morning, U.S. officials remained reticent about the imminent talks.
Ambassador Joseph Prueher gave no details besides that the meeting was scheduled to start at 3 p.m. local time (3 a.m. EDT).
"There will be a very short at the end of the meetings," Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Peter F. Verga told reporters outside the U.S. Embassy.
While Beijing officials said the talks would be nonconfrontational, Mr. Zhu yesterday again blamed the United States for the collision, which left a Chinese pilot dead and 24 Americans in captivity for 11 days on a South China Sea island.
"Top U.S. officials have made irresponsible statements, ignoring our requests and confusing falsehoods with truth," Mr. Zhu said. "At this moment, they also are trying to blame us, and they must take full responsibility. We express our dissatisfaction. We are the victim."
Mr. Bushs national security team — including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff met separately yesterday. Each group discussed options for resuming surveillance flights off China and for protecting the aircraft if necessary.
The United States took an equally tough stance, demanding return of the plane now held on Hainan island and reiterating that the reconnaissance flights themselves are not up for negotiation and will resume at a time and place that Washington will determine.
"Our position going into this is very clear," said Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley. "That EP-3 is American property and we want it back."
"The United States will continue surveillance and reconnaissance flights around the world," Adm. Quigley said in Washington. "I mean, we do this in international airspace, in full compliance with international law, and we have every right to do that."
American military chiefs will recommend a two-step approach to resuming surveillance flights near China beginning along the eastern coast, where Pentagon officials say Chinese fighter jets have been less aggressive, then extending south to the area where this months collision took place, defense officials in Washington said yesterday on the condition of anonymity.
"There is sensitivity with the airplane down south," one official told Reuters news agency. "What they are talking about is a measured approach to give the Chinese a chance to come to grips with international law."
Mr. Rumsfeld has not yet made his final recommendation to Mr. Bush, and the officials reiterated that the presidents decision is likely to depend in large part on the outcome of talks in Beijing.
Officials told the Associated Press that fighter escorts were unlikely, but they could not rule it out. These officials said that if fighters were used, they more likely would be land-based U.S. fighters in South Korea or Japan, rather than fighters aboard an aircraft carrier.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said continuous fighter escorts would be impractical and expensive, but he said that if China does not stop harassing U.S. surveillance planes, "the United States may well have to do something to demonstrate its resolve" possibly using escorts for a short time.
The United States yesterday also laid out for the first time a specific mechanism for return of the high-tech surveillance plane.
Adm. Quigley said one plan is to "get a team of aeronautical engineers familiar with the construction of the EP-3 onto the ground" to assess damage to the plane, caused when a Chinese fighter jet clipped a propeller on the EP-3E and broke apart, showering the Navy plane with debris.
"If that is doable and its acceptable to the Chinese, we could then consider sending in a repair team of some sort with the appropriate parts and the tools and the auxiliary equipment you would need to effect the repairs and fly the plane out," Adm. Quigley said.
"If the plane is not flyable, or if that solution is not acceptable to the Chinese for one reason or another, an alternative might be to literally disassemble the plane and then figure out a way to either fly the parts of the airplane off the island or ship them off the island in crates or something," he said.
Adm. Quigley upped the rhetoric as well, saying Chinas refusal to return the EP-3E could hurt the communist country in dealings with other nations.
"Anybody who would be looking perhaps to make investments in China would seriously question whether or not the Chinese would have respect for property," he said.
Six of the eight members of the U.S. team are military officers or Defense Department officials. They include an expert on the EP-3E and Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy military attache who served as chief contact with the crew members during their captivity.
Chinas delegation is led by Lu Shimin, director general of the Foreign Ministrys North American and Oceanic Affairs Department, said spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue. She said military officials would also be in the delegation, but provided no details.
Anti-American rhetoric remained high in Beijing. Chinas government-run newspaper, the Peoples Daily, said todays meeting was to discuss "the crash of a Chinese military plane rammed by a U.S. military surveillance plane."
Mr. Zhu, speaking to reporters in Caracas, Venezuela, where President Jiang Zemin was wrapping up a 12-day Latin America tour, accused the United States of violating international and Chinese law.
He claimed the EP-3E was flying "inside" a Chinese territorial zone before it was intercepted by two Chinese fighter planes. He also charged that the United States violated Chinas sovereignty by landing at the military base in Hainan without first securing permission.
Mr. Zhu restated Chinas version that it was the EP-3E that caused the collision by turning into the path of the Chinese fighter.
"We can call these a series of actions by the U.S. side, which violated international law and the internal laws of our country," the Chinese spokesman said.

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