A US aircraft carrier was sailing away from China in the western Pacific yesterday and US defense officials said there were no plans to move it where it could launch fighter jets to protect reconnaissance flights off China's coast.
The officials, who asked not to be identified, responded to a Washington Post report quoting Navy officials as saying that the carrier USS Kitty Hawk, based in Japan, was sailing in the direction of the South China Sea off China.
But defense officials told reporters that the Kitty Hawk, which recently made a port visit in Thailand, had already bypassed the South China Sea yesterday and was headed eastward, away from the Philippines, toward the area around Guam for a previously scheduled air defense exercise.
The newspaper said US reconnaissance flights could resume as early as Thursday in international airspace about 80km off the Chinese coast, following last Wednesday's release of the 24-member crew of a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane.
The EP-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan Island on April 1 after a midair collision with a Chinese fighter, prompting the Bush administration's first major diplomatic test as China demanded an apology and criticized the surveillance flights.
"I know of nobody who is considering sending her [the Kitty Hawk] into the South China Sea to do anything," one of the defense officials said yesterday.
Another official added that it would be "very impractical" to station the carrier east of the Philippines and use its fighters to protect any future reconnaissance flights from Chinese harassment in international air space.
"Of course anything could happen in the future. But there are just no plans to put that carrier in the South China Sea," said the official.
US and Chinese officials are set to meet tomorrow in Beijing to discuss the reconnaissance flights, which China says come too close but the US says are routine missions conducted in international airspace. The meeting was scheduled as part of the negotiations that included US expressions of regret -- but no apology -- and led to the release of the crew.
At the Beijing meeting, China is expected to ask that the flights be moved farther off its coast or stopped altogether, a defense official said.
US officials have indicated that the US plans to continue the flights, which gather information from radar, monitored telephone conversations and other electronic data.
The US has stressed the view that the flights are not acts of covert espionage, but legal and open movements though international airspace.
Meanwhile, China yesterday lionized its new "revolutionary martyr," the fighter pilot killed in the collision with the surveillance plane, signalling an uncompromising stance in bilateral talks on the incident this week.
President Jiang Zemin (
"He was resolute and daring, cool and calm, heroic and indomitable, and with his life he composed a stirring song of victory for patriotism and revolutionary heroism," Xinhua said, quoting a decree from the Central Military Commission, which Jiang heads.