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Carrier on Standby Fighter Jets Could Reinforce China Flights

By Thomas E. Ricks Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, April 16, 2001; Page A01

A U.S. aircraft carrier may be moved to a position in the South China Sea where it could launch fighter jets to protect U.S. reconnaissance flights off China's coast when those flights resume, Navy officials said yesterday.

The flights may resume as early as Thursday in international airspace about 50 miles off the Chinese coast, officials indicated. Depending on the Chinese reaction, the addition of U.S. warplanes to the mix could lead to new confrontations or signal the resumption of routine military operations.

U.S. and Chinese officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Beijing to discuss the flights, which the Chinese government says come too close but the United States says are routine missions conducted in international airspace.

The meeting was scheduled as part of the diplomatic exchange that led to Wednesday's release of the 24 crew members of a Navy EP-3E. That plane made a heart-stopping emergency landing on China's Hainan Island after it was badly damaged in a collision with a Chinese fighter aircraft April 1.

At the Beijing meeting, China is expected to ask that the flights be moved farther off its coast or stopped altogether, a Defense Department official said. The United States plans to respond that it intends to continue the flights, he said.

China rejected again yesterday the U.S. contention that a Chinese fighter pilot was responsible for the crash that killed him.

"They must assume their responsibility," said Wang Zhen, China's ambassador to Venezuela, where Chinese President Jiang Zemin was making the last stop of a Latin American tour. "They crashed into us, our pilot is dead and the family of this poor pilot is crying every day. Who is responsible? The U.S."

The USS Kitty Hawk, which carries about 70 aircraft, recently passed Singapore and yesterday passed through the southern Philippines, a Navy official said last night. By the time the Beijing meeting occurs, the ship could be ready to send up fighters to support the reconnaissance flights, but only if it soon receives an order to reverse course, a Navy official said.

Adm. Dennis C. Blair, U.S. military commander for the Pacific, last week suggested three possible courses of action to the Bush administration, an official said: Send the Kitty Hawk on a slow, northward track through the South China Sea; tell it to linger farther south of the Philippines; or keep it on its planned course toward Guam. The ship currently is continuing toward Guam, an official said last night.

"Blair recommended different options that could or could not send a message, depending on how they wanted to play it," a Pentagon official said, confirming the other official's account.

Blair did not recommend that the F-14s and F/A-18 fighters actually escort the U.S. reconnaissance planes, a third official emphasized. That's because the United States wants to underscore its view that the flights aren't acts of underhanded espionage, but legal and overt movements though international airspace, said a Navy official in Washington.

"Our view is that the flights are so benign that they don't need escorts," he said.

Rather, he indicated that if the White House approves, the Navy fighters would fly farther off the Chinese coast than the reconnaissance planes, perhaps 100 miles away.

"The thinking isn't to intercept the interceptors," another official emphasized.

The United States sends about 200 reconnaissance flights a year near China's coasts, a Chinese military official said. The Chinese send up fighter aircraft to intercept about one-third of those flights, Pentagon officials report.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference Friday that "in recent months there have been 44 [People's Liberation Army] interceptions of U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance flights off the coast of China."

The Kitty Hawk, based in Yokosuka, Japan, is part of Carrier Battle Group Five, which includes several other ships.

The battle group is commanded by Rear Adm. Robert F. Willard, a career aviator who was the aerial coordinator for "Top Gun," the Tom Cruise movie about Navy fighter pilots that culminates in an aerial confrontation at sea.

2001 The Washington Post Company

-- Martin Thompson (, April 15, 2001

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