US Defense Chief Forges Close Ties To China's Veiled Military Leaders

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE United States and China have broadened their military links in another conciliatory step to relax their tensile relations.

Almost six months after President Clinton decoupled US trade and China's human rights record, Defense Secretary William Perry has sought, during a four-day visit, to forge closer contacts with China's military, a key political force here and a major influence on Asian security.

But, five years after the US cut ties with the Chinese military for its role in crushing 1989 political protests, the US defense official cautioned that China must also end human rights abuses and curb weapons and nuclear-technology sales in Asia, two issues that continue to overshadow ties between Washington and Beijing.

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Urging China to help ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and end the sale of nuclear technology to Pakistan, Mr. Perry told more than 200 officers of China's People's Liberation Army on Oct. 18 that ``China has a huge stake [in India and Pakistan] since it involves nations on its border.

``With so much at stake, it is essential that countries with influence in South Asia try to stop the potential arms race before it gathers momentum,'' he said.

As the first defense secretary to visit China since 1988 and since military relations were formally restored last year, Perry is among a stream of visiting officials recently dispatched by the Clinton administration to try to patch up differences with Beijing.

In August, Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown led a US business delegation to China and signed potential business deals worth billions of dollars.

Outgoing Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy is expected later this year.

But the bonhomie that has characterized the official US visits cannot mask continuing irritants between China and the US.

Despite its downplaying of human rights concerns, the Clinton administration remains under domestic pressure from human rights advocates to press China to end detentions and torture of political activists.

``The discussion of human rights took a good deal of time,'' said a senior US official at a news briefing during the visit. ``The discussion obviously did not lead to a common point of view. There are difference in how human rights are defined.''

On the trade front, Beijing and Washington remain at odds over intellectual property-rights abuses and limits on market access, which are blocking China's aggressive campaign to rejoin the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) before the end of the year.

``American opposition to China's reentry into GATT is as difficult for China as the [most-favored-nation] status,'' says a Chinese analyst, referring to Clinton's decision to extend China's low-tariff trading status in May and to sever trade privileges from human rights considerations.

To advance the military contacts, Perry did not raise concerns over Chinese arms sales to Iran nor did his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Chi Haotian, press for an end to US weapons sales to Taiwan, a priority issue for China, which considers Taiwan to be a renegade province.

Still, pressed by its Asian allies to engage China in direct contacts to defuse the looming Chinese military threat in the region, the US official announced some steps to expand bilateral contacts.

At a press conference Oct. 18, Perry said that China had agreed to break its longstanding defense secretiveness and brief Pentagon officials on China's broad military strategy and defense spending plans.

In turn, US military officers will provide a similar briefing in Beijing next month. The two countries will also cooperate in the conversion of military industries to civilian production.

``We're not looking for military secrets. We're not looking for details about weapons systems,'' Perry said, referring to what he calls ``transparency'' in China's defense planning. ``That transparency can reduce the concern of neighbors of China that China's military plans pose a threat. In the view of the US government, China's military program does not pose that threat.''

Earlier this month, the US lifted trade sanctions imposed on China in August 1993 for selling missiles to Pakistan in exchange for a Chinese promise to refrain from transferring missile technology to its South Asian ally.

``Restraint by China in transferring these technologies, in concert with US and other major powers, is vital to the success of current global nonproliferation regimes,'' Perry said.

The US official also said that more Chinese openness about its military could dampen concerns about China's military intentions in the region.

Last year, Beijing declared sovereignty over South China Sea islands claimed by five nearby nations, as well as East China Sea islands claimed by Japan. It also sold a US oil company rights in waters claimed by Vietnam.

But Perry applauded Chinese and Vietnamese pledges to avoid conflict and the apparent agreement in Geneva Oct. 18 between the US and North Korea over inspection of North Korean's nuclear program. The US defense delegation will stop in South Korea and Japan to brief leaders about the accord before returning to the US.

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