WASHINGTON - The office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered the suspension of military exchanges and contacts with the Chinese armed forces and then abruptly reversed the order yesterday after the White House objected, Pentagon officials said.
The reversal, which the Pentagon announced in an unusual retraction last evening, reflected a degree of confusion in an administration that had tried to project a disciplined management style.
It also underscored divisions among President Bush's advisers over how tough to be with China after the confrontation over a U.S. surveillance aircraft that remains at a Chinese military base on Hainan island.
A memorandum dated April 30 and signed by Chris Williams, a senior adviser to Rumsfeld for policy matters, directed the U.S. armed forces to suspend contacts between their civilian and military officials and their Chinese counterparts "until further notice," according to an official who read it.
Several hours after the order became public, in a CNN broadcast, the Pentagon issued a statement saying that the memorandum had "misinterpreted the position" of Rumsfeld, even though Pentagon officials had earlier confirmed the memo's main points.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleisher said in an interview later that his office had objected to the disclosure because it did not reflect what the White House understood to be the thrust of Rumsfeld's guidance.
Other Pentagon officials and lawmakers contradicted the account that Rumsfeld had not approved the cancellation of military-to-military contacts.
Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had spoken with Rumsfeld about suspending contacts with the Chinese military and heartily endorsed the tougher line that it suggested.
He added that the suspension was "a purely understandable message" to the Chinese military that it had detained the 24 crew members of the U.S. surveillance plane, an EP-3E Aries II, for 11 days after it and a Chinese fighter collided on April 1 over the South China Sea and made an emergency landing on Hainan island.
The order and its reversal occurred at a delicate moment in the administration's efforts to retrieve the aircraft. A team of American technicians from Lockheed Martin, the main builder of the aircraft, arrived on Tuesday on Hainan to begin examining the damage to determine whether the plane can be flown off the island. It was not clear whether the announcements would affect those efforts.
The Pentagon statement this evening said that Rumsfeld planned to review contacts case by case and that it was not imposing a blanket suspension. A spokesman for the Pentagon, Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley, said there were no contacts planned for this month.