Cohen off to Repair Relations with China

Article excerpt

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen leaves today for China hoping to jump-start the Pentagon's stalled military diplomacy program, which so far has done little to coax the People's Liberation Army into being more open or friendly.

Defense officials said privately that China several times turned down offers to conduct joint military exercises with U.S. forces to practice humanitarian relief or search and rescue operations.

The PLA also has balked at conducting simple indoor military exercises, known as the "Sand Table" seminar program, the officials said.

"The Chinese said, `We don't conduct exercises with anyone,' " said one official.

However, a senior defense official who briefed reporters on the secretary's Asia trip said cooperating in military, humanitarian and disaster relief and the tabletop exercises are areas the Pentagon hopes will be resumed.

"The purpose of the visit to China is threefold: to promote our military-to-military relationship with China, as part of our overall bilateral relationship; to conduct high-level policy dialogue on a broad range of global, regional and bilateral issues; and thirdly, to improve our lines of communication between our two leaderships," the official said.

The only event scheduled is the signing of a memorandum on the environment. However, officials familiar with the agreement said it lacks substance and is nothing more than a call for further discussions on the issue.

Mr. Cohen will meet officials in Beijing tomorrow through Thursday and travel to Shanghai on Friday. He is scheduled to spend the weekend in Sydney, Australia, with defense officials there before returning to Washington July 17.

The four-day visit to Beijing and Shanghai will be the first by the defense secretary since military-to-military contacts were cut off after the errant U.S. bombing raid on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the Balkan air war last year.

Despite numerous U.S. apologies, including several by President Clinton, China continues to view the bombing as a deliberate attack designed to embroil China in the European conflict.

China's announcement of the visit was muted. An official Foreign Ministry statement said Mr. Cohen is visiting as a guest of Defense Minister Chi Haotian to "hold talks and exchange views . . . on issues of mutual interest."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi told reporters in Beijing the visit by Mr. Cohen is important for relations between the two countries.

However, in a preview of what Mr. Cohen can expect to hear from senior officials, Mr. Sun criticized the United States for the embassy bombing and U.S. plans for a national missile defense.

"We are still demanding that the U.S. side face the severity of this bombing incident and carry out a full investigation into this matter leading to a satisfactory explanation," Mr. Sun said. The bombing by U.S. B-2 bombers killed three Chinese officials and injured 20 others. It was "a gross violation of Chinese sovereignty, greatly hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and undermined China-U.S. relations," Mr. Sun said.

Mr. Cohen told reporters in Florida last week that he will "try to get back on track our military-to-military relations with the Chinese to explore ways in which we can cooperate on a military basis by discussing potential peacekeeping activities, talking about making the so-called rules of the road as far as our forces are concerned in humanitarian de-mining, other types of peaceful activities that we can cooperate on. …