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Spy Issue Seems to Not Bug Beijing

Diplomacy: China's lack of formal protest against reported U.S. espionage bid on plane points to a desire to maintain stable ties, analysts say.

January 20, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As government officials declined to comment Saturday on reports that U.S. intelligence had bugged a new Chinese presidential aircraft, some American experts predicted that the alleged incident will have no lasting impact on Sino-American relations.

Officials at the CIA, White House and State Department all cited a policy against responding to reports of espionage activities. "On these types of allegations, our policy is just not to comment," said Mike Tadie, a CIA spokesman.

In Japan, Richard Boucher, the senior State Department spokesman, said he was aware of the allegations but declined to comment on them.

The alleged bugging, first reported Saturday by the Washington Post and the Financial Times of London, involved a Boeing 767 jetliner that was bought by Beijing in June 2000 and refitted in San Antonio with special amenities for Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Chinese intelligence and aviation officials reportedly found numerous listening devices on the plane last fall, when the aircraft was undergoing test flights. The highly sophisticated devices were discovered in such places as the president's bathroom and the headboard of his bed, according to the newspapers.

Though the Chinese would have known of the bugs for several months, they have so far made no formal protest to the United States. That fact suggests that though the alleged incident might be an irritant, it might not be a major setback to Sino-U.S. relations, analysts said.

One Defense Department official, who declined to be identified, said that spy activities are assumed to be directed against one another by any number of countries. He noted that Israel, one of the closest U.S. allies, has spied on the United States.

Bates Gill, a China expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, predicted that the surveillance effort, if true, "would not have any lasting effect," especially because the bugs seem to have been discovered before Jiang used the plane.

Gill said China's apparent decision not to protest underscores the leadership's deep desire to maintain the steadiness of its ties to the United States. Jiang and other leaders believe that will enable them to focus on their most important tasks, including the socioeconomic transformation of their country and a reshuffling of the leadership that is coming up this year, Gill said.

"Imagine what the reaction would have been like in our country if we had discovered that the Chinese had bugged Air Force One," Gill said. Yet, "we're the most important single relationship China has, and they're going to go a long way to make sure the relationship remains stable."

The reports of espionage came about a month before a scheduled summit between President Bush and Jiang in Beijing.

China has an increasingly close economic relationship with the United States, which buys about 40% of its exports. Yet Sino-U.S. relations have been strained by a number of developments in recent years.

In December, the Bush administration upset Chinese officials by deciding to cast aside the 1972 treaty with Russia that restricted the countries' antimissile defenses. The Chinese fear that the United States will build a missile defense system that could neutralize the Communist nation's relatively small nuclear arsenal.

Last April, after one of its fighter jets collided with a U.S. EP-3 spy plane gathering intelligence off the Chinese coast, China held the U.S. crew for 11 days. And in May 1999, a U.S. warplane participating in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's air war against Yugoslavia accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade.

Those incidents unleashed an outpouring of anger from ordinary Chinese against the United States.

As to the alleged U.S. bugging of the presidential plane, Gill said, Chinese leaders may have wanted to avoid provoking another such powerful reaction.

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