The Defense Department accidentally complicated an already tense relationship with China Wednesday as a leaked internal memorandum stated that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had suspended all contacts with the Chinese military. Hours later, the Pentagon retracted the memo, calling it a misunderstanding.
Sent Monday from Rumsfeld's office to senior Pentagon officials, the memo said he was ordering "the suspension of all Department of Defense programs, contacts and activities with the People's Republic of China until further notice."
Hours after the memo leaked and was reported worldwide by U.S. news organizations, a spokesman for Rumsfeld, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said it was a mistake. In the interim, Quigley and other officials had struggled to explain the move, which also appeared to catch the White House by surprise.
Quigley told reporters that the unnamed Rumsfeld aide who wrote the memo had "misinterpreted the secretary's intentions" by declaring a suspension of military-to-military relations.
"[Rumsfeld's] actual intention is for all elements of the military-to-military program to be reviewed and approved on a case-by-case basis by the Department of Defense," Quigley said, adding that the Secretary had not seen the memo before it was sent to the military service secretaries, the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior civilian officials in the Pentagon.
Several officials told reporters that they understood the order to have taken effect Monday, the day it was distributed inside the Pentagon. Later, Quigley said that a corrected version would be sent to make clear that military-to-military ties were not suspended.
Monday's memo was quite detailed. It said Rumsfeld had directed that defense attaches abroad be permitted to attend social functions, as part of their usual activities, in which Chinese officials may be present. But there were to be no Pentagon contacts with Chinese diplomatic representatives in Washington, it said.
The confusion over the future of U.S.-Chinese military relations became public on the day that a team of U.S. civilian defense contractors arrived in China to assess what would be required to return the Navy surveillance plane that made an emergency landing at a military airfield on Hainan island on April 1 after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet.
The Lockheed Martin technicians spent about four hours aboard the Navy plane on Wednesday to begin their assessment. They were to return to the plane for a final day of work on Thursday.
Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, said in an interview with USA Today that China's behavior following the collision between the Navy plane and the Chinese fighter "leads us to believe that China is indeed a threat to the Asia-Pacific region." The remark could further annoy Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a rebellious province.
Chen confirmed his intention to visit the United States this month despite objections from communist China.
In a brief appearance before reporters earlier Wednesday before the internal memo leaked to the news media, Rumsfeld did not mention his intentions regarding military-to-military contacts with China.
He said it wasn't clear whether the Navy spy plane would be flown off the island or, alternatively, be disassembled and brought by ship or air.
"There's an assessment team on the ground at the present time," he said. "We've received some reports back, but there's nothing conclusive on that point."
Quigley said there were no military-to-military contacts with China scheduled for May, and the Pentagon had said previously it was going to reconsider how to proceed with contacts beyond this month.
U.S.-Chinese military relations have traveled a rocky road. The Pentagon broke off ties after the Chinese military's deadly 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, and contacts had just begun to grow again when they were halted in 1996 after China lobbed missiles toward Taiwan.
Beijing broke off military ties in early 1999 after U.S. planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia during NATO's campaign against Slobodan Milosevic. The Chinese never accepted the U.S. explanation that it was an accident, and didn't resume defense relations for several months.