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Chinese planes collect electronic data Bill Gertz THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Published 4/10/01

China is continuing aerial surveillance off southern China as the Pentagon is reviewing whether to halt its flights in the region until the EP-3E dispute is resolved.

Defense officials said there has been no halt in Chinese military reconnaissance flights targeted at collecting electronic communications from Taiwan, Vietnam and areas of the South China Sea. "They're doing surveillance and reconnaissance of Taiwan and Vietnam," said one official.

At the Pentagon, officials said there have been no routine U.S. surveillance flights of the same region since the April 1 collision between an American EP-3E and a Chinese F-8 interceptor. However, the next scheduled EP-3E mission is set for the next several days. "The Pentagon is reviewing whether that flight will go forward," said a second defense official. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley declined to comment when asked about the review.

Meanwhile, Bush administration spokesmen declined to comment on a report in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times that China is preparing to carry out a nuclear test in the midst of the standoff over the downed U.S. surveillance plane.

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, said nuclear test preparations at Lop Nur in remote western China show the need for continued aerial surveillance flights.

"Any underground nuclear testing by the Chinese would serve to confirm the rationale for continued American flights or other activities and should convince the skeptics of the need for our presence in the region," Mr. Torricelli said in an interview. "Their rapid military buildup, testing of long range missiles, deployment of offensive missiles opposite Taiwan and now possible renewed underground testing are arguments for continuing the surveillance," Mr. Torricelli said.

Mr. Torricelli said the continued detention of the American crew is a clear sign they are becoming hostages. "Soon it will be questionable whether it is appropriate to have an ambassador and hostages in the same country," he said. The Chinese surveillance flights are being carried out by Y-8 maritime patrol jets equipped to collect electronic signals, the defense officials said.

China's government has demanded all U.S. surveillance flights near China be halted, in addition to seeking a formal U.S. apology for the incident near Hainan Island. The Chinese F-8 crashed and its pilot is missing and presumed dead.

Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian said on Sunday that the United States should "take effective measures to avoid another similar matter from happening." U.S. surveillance aircraft have flown "close to Chinese coastal areas for reconnaissance," he said, according to the official People's Daily newspaper.

Senior Bush administration officials said Sunday that the United States is willing to discuss with China its intelligence flights, a signal that has worried some Pentagon officials who fear the flights will be halted.

Vice President Richard B. Cheney said "we've agreed that we're prepared to discuss those kinds of questions." However, he insisted that the United States has a right to carry out the operations and "we will continue to operate as appropriate." Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Sunday that the flights "threaten no one" and are conducted in international airspace. "And we can't stop performing those flights just because one country or another prefers that we not fly them," he said. "So, our reconnaissance flights, when we fly them, how we will fly them, over international airspace, in international airspace over international water, will be something that the United States government will decide."

State Department officials are pressing to suspend further EP-3E flights while diplomatic efforts are carried out to win the release of the 24 Americans who were aboard the EP-3E when it made an emergency landing. Pentagon and military officials want the flights to continue and are concerned that any negotiations would lead to limitations on vital intelligence gathering needed by commanders. "We reserve the right to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance flights in international airspace at the time of our choosing around the world," Adm. Quigley said. "I'm not going to get into scheduling or approval of schedules."

Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military with the Jamestown Foundation, said the Chinese use Y-8s and converted Russian Tu-154 aircraft to conduct maritime intelligence collection. The Chinese also are believed to use an airstrip on Woody Island in the disputed Spratly Islands for their spy flights over the South China Sea.

"These flights are not as frequent as our normal reconnaissance program but it is building up," Mr. Fisher said. "They are patrolling more frequently than in the past." Mr. Fisher said U.S. surveillance flights of the region are "critical to maintaining a picture of the evolving Chinese military capability and order of battle." "The Chinese are engaged in a major military modernization buildup targeted on what they believe will be a coming conflict over Taiwan," he said.

U.S. surveillance fights are "critical to our ability to continue to deter conflict and prepare for the future." Al Santoli, a defense aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, also said the U.S. surveillance missions should not be negotiated with the Chinese.

"While China is continuing both its nuclear missile developmental program and its naval buildup along the coast with both surface ships and submarines, it would be a serious strategic setback for the United States and would send a chilling message to America's allies throughout the region if the United States suspended its surveillance at this time," Mr. Santoli said.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 10, 2001

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