ARLINGTON, Va. — Nearly four years after a U.S. Navy spy plane was intercepted off China, the two nations are working on an agreement that would use a hot line between its defense departments, and clarify a “rules of the road” when aircraft or ships encounter each other.

If successful, the two-pronged effort would allow direct communication between the respective tops and bottoms of the two chains of command and, U.S. officials hope, diffuse future flashpoints.

Richard Lawless, the Pentagon chief of Asian affairs, led a team that met with Chinese brass in Beijing last week to discuss the proposals, according to a senior defense official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

U.S. leaders have raised the two ideas repeatedly in recent years, to no avail.

“We’ve been attempting to break the impasse,” said the official. A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington declined to comment on the negotiations.

“If an agreement like this had been in place, then at least there would have been an avenue to talk [during and after the spy plane incident], but that avenue doesn’t exit, even to this day,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Greg Hicks.

“We’ll never know what the end result might have been, but it certainly would have been nice to have some sort of protocol in place for the two pilots to talk to each other,” said Hicks. And after the fact, had a hot line existed, it “would have made a huge difference” in getting the crew and aircraft released.

Lawless’ visit follows a trip to China by Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers a year ago and Pacific Command’s chief Adm. Thomas Fargo’s visit in July as relations between the two militaries have thawed since the EP-3 was forced down in April 2001.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may soon add the weight of his office, as well. Rumsfeld “has agreed in principle” to a trip to China sometime this year, said the official [see sidebar].

Lost in translation

The United States and China signed the Military Maritime Consultation Agreement in 1998, designed to provide clear instructions to pilots and warship captains when they meet their counterparts in international airspace and waters.

The details that were to follow — how to exchange calls signs and frequencies, even the use of hand and arm signals — never materialized.

The Chinese, said the official, have insisted on first agreeing to what constitutes international waters and airspace. The Chinese claim 200 miles off their coastlines, while international norms limit territorial claims to 12 miles.

“That’s a huge issue for them. I’d be really surprised, bordering on stunned, if they were willing to separate that from the discussions,” said Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

It was that disagreement that led to the Chinese fighter pilot forcing the Navy’s surveillance crew down in April 2001, following a series of confrontations between U.S. spy planes and the Chinese Air Force. Three tension-filled days passed before they were released.

Now, said the defense official, “the Chinese are holding the MMCA semi-hostage” over the dispute.

The idea of a hot line from the Pentagon to the Chinese ministry of defense may be closer to reality. Instead of rebuffing the proposal during this latest visit, the Chinese now say they are “studying seriously” the concept, said the official.

Rumsfeld may visit China

Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has agreed in principle to pay an official visit to China, a significant step toward revitalizing a military-to-military dialogue forced into hiatus after a Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter collided in international airspace in 2001.

“Secretary Rumsfeld is interested in visiting China this year,” a senior Defense Department official said Tuesday. No final commitment had been made and no date had been set for a visit.

He said the most recent military and defense policy white paper released by the government in Beijing described in troubling ways the American military presence in the Pacific and characterized the security situation regarding Taiwan.

The American presence in the region “complicated security factors,” The New York Times reported the Chinese military document as stating. And the situation in the waterway dividing Taiwan from the Chinese mainland is “grim,” it added.

During recent talks, Pentagon officials pressed their Chinese counterparts to explain those choices of words, which the Defense Department official described as “an escalation in the level of rhetoric.”

The Chinese military’s buildup across from Taiwan is “a substantial increase in capability” and “is an issue of concern to us,” the official said.

In recent bilateral discussions, the question of expanding reciprocal visits has come up, with the American delegations pressing for improving the quality “of what we get to see and do,” the official said.

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