THE expulsion of two American military officers from China yesterday sent a new chill through already strained Sino-American relations and mirrored the deepening suspicions between Washington and Beijing.
Only a day after top diplomats from the two countries met and seemed to launch steps to heal their rift, Chinese authorities accused two US Air Force officers of spying on China's southeastern coast, not far from the vicinity of recent missile tests aimed at intimidating Taiwan.
A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, carried on the official New China News Agency, charged that Joseph Wei Chan, an Air Force liaison officer, and Dwayne Howard Florenzie, an assistant Air Force liaison officer, both based at the American consulate in Hong Kong, were caught photographing and videotaping in restricted military zones July 29. The two officers, who had been in China since July 23, were given 24 hours to leave.
The expulsion further strains the tense Sino-US standoff, which was triggered by the ''private'' visit of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the United States in June and the arrest of American human rights activist Harry Wu in China last month. China was enraged that the United States hosted the leader of what it regards as a renegade province. Beijing regards Mr. Wu as a spy trying to undermine the country with exposes about the Chinese penal system.
Relations, normalized in 1979 after decades of cold war antagonism and belligerence, have hit their lowest point since the brutal Chinese military crackdown on pro-democracy protests six years ago. At press time, spokespeople at the US Embassy could not be reached at their homes for comment.
The expulsion comes as a stunning follow-up to Tuesday's meeting between US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Brunei. The two diplomats met during a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Although they failed to score a major breakthrough in resolving their differences, Mr. Christopher and Mr. Qian seemed to set contacts back on course by pledging to hold further meetings in the future. Washington is demanding the release of Wu, an influential dissident who has extensive contacts in the American Congress and is a naturalized American citizen. He served almost two decades in Chinese prison labor camps and has since crusaded to expose Chinese abuses.
China has asked the US to bar Taiwanese President Lee from further visits to the US. Last week, to cool Taiwan's fervor for greater international recognition, the Chinese military conducted a series of surface-to-surface missile tests off the northern coast of the island.
The expulsion of the two American officers is also likely to further unnerve China's Southeast Asian neighbors who are jittery over Beijing's assertive claims to the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. At the ASEAN meeting, China offered reassurances to the Southeast Asian countries that it would negotiate bilaterally a solution to the conflicting claims by six different countries and abide by the international Law of the Sea.
However, the growing influence of the Chinese military in the country's upcoming political succession to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping makes any accommodation difficult, Western analysts say. The missile tests as well as the ouster of the Air Force officers reflects ''the military's refusal to compromise on sovereignty issues,'' says a Western diplomat.
In the official news agency dispatch, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the two Americans were found to have ''sneaked into a number of restricted military zones in China's southeast coastal areas and illegally acquired military intelligence by photographing and videotaping.'' Scott Hallford, the charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in Beijing, was summoned to receive the formal protest of the Chinese.