Just when the United States and China are moving to repair badly frayed ties, two developments have arisen that could set back their fence-mending efforts.
Both involve missiles. And they come as the sides celebrate what they view as successful talks last Saturday between President Clinton and Chinese President Ziang Zemin in New Zealand on mending damage to relations from NATO's bombing in May of China's Embassy in Belgrade and a collapse of trade talks in April.
The developments underscore the difficulties the two nuclear giants face in trying to keep on an even keel what will be one of the most complex and risk-fraught relationships of the next century.
"What this shows is that the happy-happy, joy-joy talk [in New Zealand] really masks that we still have fundamental areas of contention with the Chinese," says James Mulvenon, a Washington-based expert with the RAND Corp., a think tank.
Just two days before the Clinton-Ziang meeting, a declassified US intelligence report presented fresh evidence that China has supplied short-range, nuclear-capable missiles to Pakistan. That finding could lead to tough sanctions against Beijing just as the sides are resuming talks on China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
The report, reflecting the consensus of the US intelligence community, says "Pakistan has Chinese-supplied M-11 short-range ballistic missiles." It is the first time such a finding has been included in a declassified "national intelligence estimate." The State Department has previously insisted it could not reach such a conclusion, and has yet to endorse the finding, saying further study is required.
"It depends to a large extent on the nature of the evidence underlying that judgment, and before the [sanctions] can be triggered, all the various elements of the missile sanctions law must be satisfied," says State Department spokesman James Foley.
China denies supplying M-11s to Pakistan, whose confrontation with India poses a grave threat of nuclear conflict.
US law, based on an international missile-control accord, mandates sanctions against governments and firms that violate the agreement. The US imposed mild sanctions in 1991 and 1993 on China and Pakistan for M-11 technology transfers, then lifted them after China promised to abide by the accord. In each case, the State Department said there was no evidence that complete M-11 systems were transferred to Pakistan, conclusions the intelligence finding contradicts.
The second missile-related development within the past week has far more serious implications for Sino-US relations and overall Asia-Pacific security than the Pakistan finding.
US officials have revealed that the US will begin building in Alaska a national missile defense (NMD) against limited attacks by "rogue" states such as Iran and North Korea should Mr. Clinton make a final deployment decision next June.
But many experts warn that Beijing will see the Alaska deployment as confirming its suspicions that the NMD system is actually aimed at neutralizing the handful of missiles that represent its nuclear deterrent against US attack. In response, it could accelerate and expand the modernization of its strategic nuclear forces beyond what it now plans, these experts say.
"This will certainly ... be perceived as a threat, for which their response will be to press on with their strategic modernization," says Spurgeon Keany, head of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. "They have a minimal program going on there now. The last thing we want to do is give an excuse to those [Chinese] who want to see a much more aggressive program."
Beijing has issued no response. But a Chinese Embassy spokesman reiterated a longstanding objection to US efforts to amend a 1972 treaty with Moscow so that it can station 100 interceptors in Alaska to counter the missile threat from North Korea. "China's position is clear," says Yu Shu Ning. "We say there should be no reversal or revision of the ABM Treaty because otherwise there would be a revival of the arms race."
Nuclear treaty at stake
That position reflects experts' apprehensions that China - and Russia - will build more nuclear-armed missiles to ensure that they can overwhelm US defenses, maintaining their nuclear deterrents.
"My fear is that it [the NMD plan] will drive the Chinese to accelerate their already robust missile modernization program," Dr. Mulvenon says. "My fear is that they will spend a lot more money than they would have and could take an extreme step of abrogating their accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in order to test to develop new warheads."
China is believed to have about 20 DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) which are based in silos and, while somewhat inaccurate, can hit anywhere in the US. It is now developing - allegedly with stolen American technology - new ICBMs that will be more accurate and harder to defend against because they are mounted on trucks.
Mulvenon and other experts charge the Clinton administration has paid little heed to the serious impact of the NMD system on relations with China. They say White House energies are focused on winning Russian approval of ABM Treaty changes so it can move toward deploying the system and defuse pressure to do so from the Republican-controlled Congress. Administration officials deny they are responding to Republican pressure.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society