WASHINGTON - China has agreed to a longstanding US request for access to sensitive military records that Pentagon officials believe might resolve the fate of thousands of US servicemen missing from the Korean War and other Cold War-era conflicts, a Pentagon official said yesterday.
The arrangement is to be publicly announced Friday in Shanghai after a final set of talks to work out certain details, according to Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's POW-MIA office.
The deal marks a modest step forward for US-China military relations, which have been strained in recent years, in part by sharp US criticism of China's military buildup. China has periodically cooperated with the Pentagon on matters related to the search for MIAs, but it has balked at repeated requests to open its military archives for documents of interest to the Pentagon.
Peter Rodman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who dealt with the Chinese on the military archives issue when Donald H. Rumsfeld was defense secretary, said in an interview that the agreement is a positive step.
"It has special meaning to our military," Rodman said, because it could answer lingering questions about the fate of servicemen whose families have waited for decades to learn more. Rodman said the significance of the deal will depend on exactly what China has agreed to provide and how it is done.
China entered the Korean War on North Korea's side in the fall of 1950 and succeeded in driving US forces out of the north. Chinese troops killed and captured thousands of American troops; the Chinese also managed many of the POW camps established in North Korea during the war.
More than 8,100 US servicemen are still unaccounted for from the Korean War.
Greer said that at least initially, the arrangement to be announced on Friday will not give US researchers direct access to Chinese records. Instead, Chinese archivists with security clearances acceptable to the People's Liberation Army will do the document searches and turn over relevant records to US analysts.
"Our people, obviously, would prefer to have their own access," Rodman said.
Details such as the frequency and volume of the document searches, as well as expenses, are yet to be worked out, Greer said.
Charles A. Ray, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW-MIA affairs, was en route to Shanghai yesterday, the spokesman said.