US Navy Port Call in China Throws a Line to Beijing

Visit of USS Bunker Hill to Quindao, six years after Tiananmen, could smooth waters

WITH relations between China and the United States on an upswing, a US naval ship made its first port of call in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre froze ties between the military powers almost six years ago.

The visit by the USS Bunker Hill, a guided-missile cruiser, to the city of Qingdao began yesterday and ends tomorrow. It is yet another effort by the US to interact with the Chinese military as it readies for a crucial role in the political tussle expected after the death of ailing paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Qingdao, located in Shandong Province, is China's main east-coast naval base and home to its growing submarine fleet. China will soon receive the first of four Russian kilo-class submarines.

The port stop comes against a brightening backdrop for Sino-American ties. Earlier this month, Washington and Beijing made progress on trade issues, initialing an agreement to control rampant copyright piracy in China and easing US objections to China's bid to join the new World Trade Organization.

Yet, Washington remains at odds with Beijing over Chinese human rights abuses and a range of military disputes, including international weapons sales, underground nuclear testing, and potential naval conflicts. Chinese analysts say the military has taken a more hard-line stance in recent months toward territorial disputes in the South China Sea and even in relations with the US.

Chinese miffed over past events

Chinese military officials were deeply angered by the 1993 diplomatic skirmish over a Chinese cargo vessel, which Washington alleged was carrying chemical weapons to Iran but, which eventually cleared an inspection.

Then, six months ago, the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and a Chinese nuclear submarine faced off in international waters off Qingdao, pulling back without confrontation but underscoring the dangers of two navies cruising in the Yellow Sea near the Korean peninsula.

''We need to keep working with China so that they can ... contribute to the future stability of the Asia-Pacific region,'' Adm. Richard Macke, US military commander in the Pacific, said on a visit this month to Singapore.

''As China moves into this political transition, the US wants a smooth relationship,'' says a Western diplomat. ''If the power balance is delicate, the US doesn't want to do anything to nudge it toward a more hard-line element.''

The Chinese military has come into sharper profile as the scramble for post-Deng power among Communist Party leaders is under way. During the closing of the usually rubber-stamp Chinese parliament late last week, President Jiang Zemin was humiliated when a large group of deputies withheld support for two candidates for top posts and key legislation on education and banking.

Earlier, the government announced an almost 15 percent increase in this year's defense budget to more than $6.6 billion. Western military analysts say that amount represents only a small portion of actual spending by the People's Liberation Army and on major projects such as creating a blue-water navy. The acquisition and development of an aircraft carrier is still under debate in Chinese military circles. But Western military analysts believe that even if China launches aircraft production soon, it will be at least 2010 before it could sustain a basic power projection.

US attempts to thaw freeze

In his speech to the parliament known as the National People's Congress, Premier Li Peng highlighted defense goals as improving border and coastal defenses, protecting territorial integrity, and ''safeguarding China's interests and benefits in the seas.''

''No one can afford not having the military on their side,'' says a Western diplomat.

In recent years, the US has moved to thaw the freeze in military cooperation that set in after the bloody suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. That event coincided with the last US port call by the Seventh Fleet in Shanghai as millions of demonstrators flooded the streets of Beijing and other cities. That naval visit ended early.

Last fall, Defense Secretary William Perry visited Beijing and urged more openness in disclosing defense spending, military strategy, and planning. He also proposed that China halt underground nuclear testing in exchange for sophisticated US military computers that would test weapons' reliability. The Chinese have not responded. In turn, China is reported to be concerned about US plans to deploy a ballistic missile-defense system that could counterbalance China's limited nuclear arsenal.

Pentagon officials have also said they are seeking to open talks with China to establish procedures for avoiding incidents such as that between the Kitty Hawk and the Chinese submarine.

Despite deep concern among some US allies in Southeast Asia, the US has also downplayed China's new incursion this year into the disputed Spratly Islands and construction of buildings on an atoll within the Philippines territorial waters.

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