THE United States was yesterday bracing itself for Chinese retaliation after it pulled the plug on a long-awaited official visit by Beijing's defence chief. Future visits to China by US military Chief of Staff John Shalikashvili - and possibly even next month's meeting between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen - were left in the balance after the US administration got cold feet at the prospect of feting Defence Minister Chi Haotian in Washington. Officials conceded a possible public and political backlash against giving General Chi a full official welcome, complete with a military salute and a meeting with President Bill Clinton at the White House, had prompted Defence Secretary William Perry to withdraw the invitation. James Sasser, the US Ambassador to China, asked the Chinese to consider a less formal meeting between Mr Perry and General Chi in Hawaii or another location in the coming weeks and expressed hope a formal meeting in Washington could take place in the summer. A brief statement released by Mr Perry's office said the Secretary had delivered a letter to General Chi in Beijing to inform him of his decision. He blamed the 'current climate' for rendering such a visit 'inappropriate'. One Senate aide said the Republican leadership was considering using General Chi's official welcome against Mr Clinton during Senator Bob Dole's presidential challenge later this year. A senior US official said Mr Perry had been the prime mover behind the decision. The official admitted China might react angrily to what could only be viewed as a snub by Washington. However, he echoed an earlier public statement by White House spokesman Mike McCurry that there was no indication as yet that Beijing would cancel the Qian-Christopher meeting in retaliation. US State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the April 21 date for the meeting in The Hague, announced on Wednesday, was 'still under consideration'. In Moscow, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Mr Christopher was 'looking forward to his meeting with Qian Qichen'. One trip that would almost certainly be affected was the visit to China by General Shalikashvili, which was due to take place sometime during the summer, assuming the Chi trip went smoothly. That is now certain to end up in political limbo until General Chi is finally allowed to come to the US. Indications that Beijing was eager to cover up the loss of face in the trip's postponement came when Xinhua (the New China News Agency) announced the move hours before the Pentagon's statement - and suggested the decision had actually been made by China. Xinhua also cited sources as saying General Chi had several times been invited to the US by Mr Perry.