- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

Two Chinese jet fighters came within 150 feet of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft near China in the first close encounter since a collision last year between an EP-3 and a Chinese jet, The Washington Times has learned.

The encounter took place in international airspace near the Chinese coast north of Taiwan on Monday, said officials familiar with intelligence reports of the incident.

Two F-7 interceptors flew parallel to a U.S. Navy P-3 surveillance aircraft and for a period of minutes flew very close to the propeller-driven plane, the officials said.

"The Chinese are getting closer to our planes," said a U.S. intelligence official, who noted that the latest aerial intercept was a troubling sign.

Another official, however, said the intercept, while closer than in the past, was "professional and non-threatening."

The timing of the latest encounter between Chinese and U.S. aircraft came as a senior Pentagon official held talks with Chinese military and defense officials in Beijing.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment directly on the latest incident but sought to play down other recent encounters.

"The Chinese intercepts are being handled with a greater degree of professionalism and airmanship than they were prior to the EP-3 incident," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis.

"Though they continue to respond to our flights, there's been an improvement," he said.

On April 1, 2001, a Chinese F-8 interceptor flew so close to a U.S. EP-3 that it collided with the aircraft and crashed into the South China Sea, killing the Chinese pilot.

The Pentagon blamed the Chinese pilot for acting recklessly.

The U.S. aircraft nearly crashed but managed to make an emergency landing at a Chinese military base on Hainan island in the South China Sea.

The 24 U.S. military crew members on board were imprisoned by Chinese forces for 11 days and interrogated. China then forced the U.S. government to dismantle the aircraft and transport it to the United States aboard a transport plane.

China's handling of the affair prompted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to sharply curtail military exchanges between the United States and China.

Cmdr. Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, said Chinese jet fighter intercepts continue occurring "at about the same rate as before" the April 2001 incident.

However, other officials said earlier intercepts by Chinese fighters took place at much greater and safer distances than the incident Monday.

In one 2001 encounter, an F-8 jet flew within 500 feet of a P-3 patrol aircraft on Jan. 7. A second intercept occurred Nov. 7, when a Chinese jet flew within 1,000 feet of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance jet flying along the Chinese coast. Several weeks before that encounter, an EP-3 was intercepted by a Chinese fighter, which kept some 1,000 feet away.

Prior to the intercepts late last year, Chinese jets had kept at distances of up to several miles from patrolling U.S. military aircraft. All of the encounters have occurred in international airspace 50 to 100 miles from Chinese territory.

U.S. intelligence officials said the latest intercept of 150 feet is a sign the Chinese military appears to be stepping up harassment of U.S. surveillance aircraft. The P-3 was conducting intelligence gathering of large-scale Chinese war games now under way opposite Taiwan. Some 100,000 Chinese troops are involved in the annual exercises.

Yesterday, Peter Rodman, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, concluded three days of talks with Chinese officials on restarting the military exchange program that was halted after the EP-3 incident, Cmdr. Davis said.

During the meetings, Mr. Rodman met with Chinese Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian.

"The purpose of the visit was to explore the resumption of U.S.-China military-to-military exchanges in accordance with recent conversations between President Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, as well as between Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Chinese President Hu Jintao," Cmdr. Davis said.

He said no agreements were reached on military exchanges and that Mr. Rodman would brief the defense secretary after he returns Friday. Discussions are to continue, he said.

Mr. Rodman "dealt candidly with problems that had arisen in the past," he said, but the talks were "constructive in spirit."

The Pentagon is demanding the Chinese contribute more in the way of the exchanges than in the past.

Critics of the exchanges say China has used its access to U.S. military facilities to gain valuable insights into U.S. war-fighting capabilities. China's military has refused to allow U.S. military personnel near any of its growing arsenal of advanced weapons, primarily missiles.

The EP-3 incident in 2001 aroused widespread anti-U.S. sentiment in China that was promoted by the Chinese government, defense officials have said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon's top China policy-maker, Peter Brookes, resigned last week for unspecified reasons, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Mr. Brookes served as deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia for less than a year and had been criticized by some conservatives as ineffective.

Cmdr. Davis gave no reason for the departure but said it was an "amicable parting."

The Washington Times reported in August that Mr. Brookes was leaving because he lacked the support of his superiors.

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