SCMP Tuesday, April 17, 2001
US carrier may back spy flights
GREG TORODE in Washington and AGENCIES
The White House is considering diverting the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier to support surveillance flights off the China coast.
Officials in the administration of President George W. Bush are waiting for the outcome of tomorrow's meeting on the Hainan Island spy plane stand-off before deciding on a range of options listed by the Pentagon.
"Our intention is for this to be a supporting act rather than a provocative act but we know it is a very sensitive time so there is a great deal to weigh up," one administration source said. "We are determined that our surveillance flights must continue as normal."
The aircraft carrier boasts 70 aircraft and is travelling through the southern Philippines after port calls in Singapore and Thailand. Early this morning it was slowly heading towards Guam.
One option outlined to Mr Bush's national security staff by Admiral Dennis Blair, US military commander for the Pacific, involves using the Kitty Hawk's fighters to shadow US spy planes but avoid confrontations, the Washington Post reported.
Reconnaissance flights could start again on Thursday, travelling as usual in international airspace 80km off the Chinese coast. Admiral Blair's plan would involve the Kitty Hawk's planes standing back a further 80km to avoid confrontations but still "send a message to Beijing".
However, some US defence officials quoted by Reuters yesterday saying the Kitty Hawk was heading away from China and there were no plans to move it where it could launch fighter jets to protect reconnaissance flights off the mainland's coast.
US officials will go into the Beijing meeting on the spy plane stand-off insisting surveillance flights must continue as part of the military's legal operations to defend the security of the US and its regional allies. Defence analysts believe the flights, running at 200 a year, may well intensify as China's coastal military expansion continues.
Yesterday, White House officials said the US side was approaching the meeting with "very low expectations".
Beijing is expected to seek agreement on pushing the flights further from the coast at the very least. It has repeatedly raised concerns about the US practice over the past two years while US officials have warned China that its pilots have been flying too close in recent months.
Pilot Wang Wei died after his F-8 plane crashed into the South China Sea following a collision with an American EP-3E Aries II spy plane southeast of Hainan Island on April 1. President Jiang Zemin signed a military decree yesterday to confer on him the honour of "Guardian of Territorial Airspace and Waters".
The American plane plunged more than 1,600 metres but managed to land at Hainan's Lingshui air base. Its 24 crew members were released last Thursday after 11 days' detention and arrived home at their base in Washington state on Saturday. The EP-3 remains on the runway at Lingshui. The crew destroyed much of its highly sensitive eavesdropping equipment before landing, Pentagon officials claim.
As a sign that Beijing will take a tough position at tomorrow's meeting, the official media yesterday again blamed Washington for backtracking and warned of the rise of anti-China voices in the US.
An article ran on the front page of the Global Times - a subsidiary of the People's Daily - with the headline saying: "The US turns hostile, denies responsibility - If it continues spy flights, it will be extremely dangerous - The anti-Chinese gang in the US wants to muddy the water."