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China Bars US Plane from Hong Kong Training Mission - 2001-08-20

Chinese officials have disclosed they barred a sophisticated U.S. Navy surveillance plane from coming to Hong Kong last week to take part in a training mission. Authorities in Beijing turned down the Pentagon request before two U.S. aircraft carriers battle groups held an exercise in the South China Sea, Friday.

China's official news agency, Xinhua, says Beijing officials studied what they called "related factors" before deciding to refuse the P3C Orion reconnaissance plane entry into Hong Kong. U.S. officials in Hong Kong say the plane was to have participated in a training mission last Wednesday and Thursday.

Although officials in Beijing did not specify what factors were considered, military and diplomatic analysts say it is clear the Chinese did not want another electronically-sophisticated U.S. spy plane on its territory. The land-based Orions have similar capabilities as the U.S. Navy's EP-3 spy planes, one of which was involved in a collision with a Chinese fighter jet April 1, off the coast of South China Sea. The EP-3 and its crew made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island, sparking a bitter three-month standoff between Beijing and Washington.

Beijing authorities say they made its decision to bar the Orion surveillance plane before the U.S. Navy conducted a rare, two-carrier training exercise Friday in the South China Sea. The drill, involving the USS Constellation and the USS Carl Vinson carrier battle groups, was denounced by the Chinese media, which called it a blatant show of force aimed at China.

U.S. Navy officials deny the exercise was meant to send a message. But most analysts believe it was in reaction to the on-going, large-scale, Chinese military drill off its southeast coast near Taiwan. David O'Rear, a regional security expert in Hong Kong, describes it as "the longest-ever Chinese military exercise. And, it has two specific components. One is to practice seizing an offshore island, Taiwan. The other is to practice against defending against a carrier. So, having those carriers in the region, I think, reminds China that it doesn't necessarily have only one carrier to deal with," he said.

Although relations between the United States and China have improved since the April 1 collision, Taiwan remains a thorny issue. Chinese officials consider Taiwan a renegade province and have vowed to take it back, by force, if necessary. U.S. leaders have pledged to help defend the island, if China attacks.

Despite the military posturing on both sides, diplomats say officials from both sides are working hard to ensure that President Bush's October visit to China is a success.

Beijing officials have allowed the USS Constellation to come to Hong Kong Monday for a five-day visit. Chinese attitude toward U.S. warships entering Hong Kong is often seen as a bellwether for relations.