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US struggles to build military ties to China

New rivalries over high-tech weapons have added to instability in

By Justin BrownStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1999



WASHINGTON

While the US and China have come to terms on international trade, the two countries are still struggling with security issues that are crucial for stability in the Pacific region.

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A US delegation visiting Beijing recently got a "lukewarm" reception when trying to reestablish military-to-military relations, according to a Pentagon official. And new rivalries are surfacing over high-tech weapons systems.

Of primary concern to US officials is preventing another flare-up involving US ally Taiwan. China has repeatedly threatened to retake the island by force.

If a conflict were to break out, the US would be in the difficult position of trying to defend Taiwan while at the same time avoiding a showdown with China.

US military and State Department officials hope that by building closer contacts with Chinese military leaders they can monitor developments in the region, which is also home to a tense standoff between North and South Korea.

Critics, however, argue that the US should strictly limit military ties with the Chinese, who have used their armed forces against their own people and who have a history of trying to acquire US technology.

US-China relations hit a low this summer when NATO bombers destroyed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. The US repeatedly apologized and called the strike a mapping mistake, but Chinese officials have been hesitant to accept that explanation.

The visit last month, led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Kurt Campbell, was the first resumption of military ties since the bombing. US officials were hoping to build on negotiations with Beijing to lower trade barriers and possibly join the World Trade Organization.

At the meeting, according to sources, US and Chinese military leaders expressed wide divergences of opinion and were unable to officially reestablish ties.

Chinese officials are also angered by US plans to build a national missile-defense system, which would severely reduce Beijing's ability to use its arsenal as a deterrence against the US. As a result, the Chinese are likely to build more missiles, which in theory would be able to overwhelm a defense system.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are gradually trying to reform their military, which places a top priority on defending its borders and keeping the ruling Communist Party in power. In 1989, for example, Beijing called in the army to crack down on pro-Democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese recently launched an unmanned spacecraft, which analysts say may have had more to do with bragging rights than with strategic value.

But, in what is perhaps more disturbing for some observers here, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is showing progress at working off of US technology to gain an advantage over regional rivals.

"The Chinese are very avid readers of our military affairs," says Bates Gill, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They do mirror us to a degree, but they are also aware that trying to match us in technology can cause them trouble."

China is reportedly working on an antiaircraft early-warning system that could counter America's vaunted stealth technology. If the Chinese are successful, the radar would be able to pick up the F-117 bomber and possibly even the F-22 fighter jet. The system works by analyzing subtle deviations in radio and TV wavelengths caused by aircraft. The US company Lockheed Martin has tested a similar system.

The Chinese system, which US officials doubt will be perfected anytime soon, was one of many topics taken up at a recent meeting of Pentagon brass to discuss China's emerging technological capabilities.

Also, the Chinese are in the process of equipping one and probably more of their aircraft with an advanced airborne radar system that is being supplied by Israel. The openly conducted $230 million sale may strain US-Israeli relations because, critics say, the technology was developed with US assistance. Also, the system could give China an advantage in the Taiwan Strait.

But, while tensions between the US and China may be high on the surface, US military officials say the Chinese are well behind in developing a modern army. Their strength is in missile technology, but they still do not have the ability to project power even to Taiwan.

For the past decade they have been trying to modernize based on what the US forces did in the Gulf War at the beginning of the '90s. But, since seeing the US in action over Yugoslavia, they have had to halt and update their programs for a second time.

Nevertheless, critics of opening military ties with China point out the PLA is getting better and better - and some of its advances come from gleaning technology from the US.

"They're assessing US doctrine and strategy to assist in developing their military," says Larry Wortzel of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank here.

"If the US has to act in [Asia] in the interest of its allies, the Chinese would be more capable against us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society