BEIJING — THE race to dominate Asian sea lanes is spreading to the skies.
In the last two years, China and rival Taiwan have made major fighter-aircraft purchases in what analysts say is an effort to provide more air support for assertive maritime ambitions in the South China Sea.
In September, Taiwan reaped American election largesse when President Bush cleared the long-sought sale of 150 F-16 fighters. The move was widely seen as a ploy by the beleaguered United States president to save thousands of aerospace jobs in electorally crucial Texas.
In another boost to Taiwan's air arsenal, a delayed $2.6 billion deal involving 60 French Mirage 2000-5 fighters is expected to follow soon, analysts say.
The purchase comes as Beijing, miffed over the sales, is soon to deploy the first batch of 24 SU-27s, the most modern ex-Soviet aircraft, and is negotiating for Russian MiG-31 interceptors. A delegation from China lobbied for the proposed MiG deal in Russia last August, Chinese analysts say.
The new aircraft, likely to be based in southern Guangxi Province or Hainan Island, are an adjunct to Beijing's vigorous push for naval supremacy. Asia has been in flux since the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union, and regional rivalries are reviving as the US military profile has been lowered in the region, analysts say.
"China is no longer focused on its northern land borders but on its maritime frontiers," a European analyst says. "And to control the seas, you need to control the skies."
"The sale of the F-16 fighters is chiefly a political issue," a Chinese military source says. "China is not afraid of the F-16s in Taiwan. If Taiwan bought 1,000 F-16s, China could handle them. China feels it has lost face."
Purchases and production of military aircraft are the latest boom in the world's hottest arms market. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, countries in Asia and the Pacific rim accounted for 35 percent of world imports of large weapons in 1991.
China, a powerful and unpredictable force in a shifting world order, is Asia's military pivot. Beijing spends an estimated 4 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on defense and in 1989 exported a whopping $2 billion in arms around the world.
Across the narrow strait from China, a small but economically muscular Taiwan spends more than 5 percent of its GNP on the military: It imported more than $2 billion in weapons from 1987 to 1991.
Despite recent cooperation on international issues such as the Gulf war and North Korea's clandestine nuclear program, China's potential and unpredictability are feared. Like Japan and South Korea, Taiwan is developing aerospace and missile industries and building fighter aircraft, armed helicopters, and guided missiles.
"China has everyone in the region worried," a Western military attache says. "China may not yet have the wherewithal to make that stick and may be 10 years away in terms of maritime superiority. But they're working on it."
Awed by the West's high-tech military show in the Gulf war, China has made air power a linchpin in its plans to refashion its coast-hugging Navy into a blue-water force, military observers say.
Earlier this year, China asserted claims to potentially oil-rich areas near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and projected an aggressive naval profile to its smaller neighbors. India, Singapore, and other nations in Southeast Asia fear an eventual Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean.
Beijing now expects Taiwan's Mirage aircraft deal, technology that it considers more sophisticated and thus more troubling than the US arms sale, to go through.
"The F-16s are not that big a deal [to the military]," the Chinese military source says. "China can buy technology elsewhere."
ALTHOUGH China's massive Army is being trimmed in favor of sophisticated weaponry, officials admit Beijing still has a long way to go. Last month, Liberation Army Daily, a military newspaper, conceded that "our Army does not have any experience in fighting a high-tech war, and this is likely to continue for a long time.
"However, in the future, we are likely to face high-tech wars, and some of our potential rivals are capable of fighting such wars."
Despite official denials, China also is believed to be pursuing the development of long-range missile capability. Western military analysts believe that only a fraction of China's nuclear arsenal is capable of reaching the US or Europe.
Yet earlier this year, China conducted a nuclear test with an estimated yield that far exceeded the limit honored by the US and Russia. Last week, Western observers believe, China tested a smaller amount of nuclear explosives to see their effect on military components and equipment.
Amid China's growing military ambitions and the region's burgeoning weapons peddling, Western and Asian observers fear that a new Asian flashpoint is building.
"China has never been an expansionist power, and right now they're not looking to gobble up countries in the neighborhood," a Western military attache says. "But Japan and others are casting a worried eye on the whole situation."