- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

BEIJING (Agence France-Presse) China yesterday said it does "not see any impact" on U.S.-China ties from the reported discovery of numerous bugging devices on President Jiang Zemin's U.S.-built personal jet.

In Beijing's first reaction to weekend reports that 27 listening devices had been discovered a month after the Boeing 767 was delivered in August, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi denied knowledge of the incident itself.

"I have also heard this news, but at present I have no knowledge of this, and don't see any impact of this event on other issues," he told reporters when asked whether the issue would affect President Bush's visit to China next month.

"China is a peace-loving country and constitutes no threat to anyone, so it is of no use to be bugging China," Mr. Sun said.

Beijing previously had refused to comment on Saturday's reports that the jet, built and given a luxury refit by firms in the United States, was riddled with bugs.

The official silence, matched by a complete blackout in the country's state-run media, led some China watchers to speculate the bugs could have been planted by internal rivals of Mr. Jiang to keep an eye on him ahead of major leadership changes expected at a Communist Party congress in the fall.

The United States has appeared equally keen to play down the bugging ahead of Mr. Bush's visit from Feb. 21, with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell saying Sunday the issue had "never been raised" by Beijing.

"It looks like Beijing and the U.S. have decided in concept to make the same kind of reply not denying, not confirming and not making any kind of statement," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the Hong Kong-based French Center for Research on Contemporary China.

"Both governments are very much involved and busy with preparations for Bush's visit to China and don't want such news to derail the whole process.

"It doesn't indicate which side put the bugs in. We'll never know," he said.

Regardless of who bugged the plane, Beijing's response indicates the news was leaked without Mr. Jiang's knowledge a sign of a serious leadership rift over policy toward the United States.

"It confirms the fact there are people in the party who tend to disagree with the current foreign policy of China who decided to put pressure on China, or Bush, or both," Mr. Cabestan said.

Relations between the global giants have warmed notably since China elected to give broad support to the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Cabestan said disagreement within China over this very issue could even have prompted disaffected elements to "cook up" the whole incident.

"We can't exclude that," he said.

"September 11 has intensified disagreement within the Chinese leadership on the U.S.," Mr. Cabestan said.

A number of military leaders are worried about U.S. military deployment in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and the U.S. pact with Pakistan, he said. "There's concern China is being encircled by the U.S., to weaken and contain China."

Mr. Jiang's pro-U.S. policy was chosen for a number of reasons, such as an eagerness to join the World Trade Organization and not jeopardize China's high-profile hosting of October's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit.

"They made these decisions because of WTO, APEC and the need for investment from the U.S. And a number of leaders are not happy with that," Mr. Cabestan said.

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