China’s central military command center will remain off-limits to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld when he visits China next week, defense officials said yesterday.
“There was a request to go to Western Hills and that was not granted to us,” said a defense official who briefed reporters on Mr. Rumsfeld’s trip to Asia, which begins Monday and will include stops in China, South Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania.
Little is known about the huge underground military facility in Beijing known as the Western Hills Command Center. The center is known as China’s Pentagon and has been couched in secrecy for decades.
According to Bush administration officials, China’s military and political leaders regard the facility as too sensitive for any foreign government officials to visit. They fear any details of the facility will be used for electronic intelligence-gathering or for targeting precision air and missile strikes in war time.
By contrast, Chinese officials have visited sensitive command facilities at the Pentagon and U.S. military bases in the past.
Defense officials described the visit to China as part of a limited U.S.-China strategic dialogue that will include discussions of China’s “lack of transparency” in its military buildup, and China’s role in pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear arms program.
The Western Hills complex, where hundreds of Chinese military personnel work in underground facilities hardened against attack as well as above-ground military quarters, was built with Russian assistance in the 1950s.
The facility is used for a range of military planning and budgeting activities, as well as housing an intelligence center and a watch center. Its communications system is thought to be in close contact with commands in China’s seven military regions around the country.
U.S. intelligence agencies learned from Russian officials that Western Hills is connected by tunnel to the secret headquarters of the Chinese Communist Politburo, within the leadership compound known as Zhongnanhai about 15 miles away.
The tunnel would be used by Chinese leaders to reach the command center in a crisis or wartime.
For decades the entire area around Western Hills was a restricted zone that was banned to both Chinese and foreign visitors.
However, in recent years the restricted area has been reduced to accommodate tourists seeking to visit Beijing’s Badachu Park, also known as the Eight Great Temples, which is near the complex.
Instead of Western Hills, China’s military leaders agreed to allow Mr. Rumsfeld to visit the administrative headquarters of the Second Artillery, as China’s missile forces are known.
China’s actual missile command is located at Western Hills.
“The Chinese attach a lot of important to this visit and so do we,” said a second defense official, who noted that it is expected to be “a non-euphoric encounter.”
“Secretary Rumsfeld goes there with the intention of having some positive outcome,” the official said. “I don’t think there’s any particular breakthrough that we expect. Just his presence and a serious dialogue is worthwhile.”