China's top foreign policy official yesterday said that advanced-weapons sales by the US to Taiwan represented "serious dangers," and asked the White House to "rein in its wild horses on the right side of the precipice" over sales to the island China resolutely considers part of its territory.
Next month, the young Bush administration faces one of its weightier decisions on Asia. In its annual review, the White House determines what defense systems to sell to Taiwan, a requirement by law since 1979.
Yet in two diplomatic missions to Washington since January, and with Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen set to go to Washington later this month, the Chinese are making an all-out effort to specifically block sales of the Aegis system, a sophisticated radar used on destroyers that could provide defense against a Chinese shoreline studded with short- and medium-range missiles. Chinese officials say the sales will encourage Taiwanese to further separate from the motherland, put US-Sino relations on the rocks, and possibly force an arms race in Asia.
Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, in a rare appearance with foreign journalists during China's annual National People's Congress (NPC), struck a moderate tone that seemed to give more weight to his statements. Mr. Tang claimed the Aegis sales represented a threshold test of whether the US would be "an outside factor coming into the way of the peaceful reunification of China."
Chinese officials have long waged prolonged wars of words over US arms sales to Taiwan. The current rhetoric may be just part of China's diplomatic game, some Western observers say. During Taiwan's presidential election in 1996 China lobbed rockets across the Taiwan Strait, an act that caused the Clinton administration to sit up and take notice, sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.
The consensus position among local Chinese experts is that China at bottom wants good relations with the US. But an abrupt switch from a US that viewed China as an opening market, to one that may view it as a military competitor, is causing waves.
One clever US move, says a leading Chinese scholar, would be for the White House to hold off on the Aegis sale this April, leave time for a relationship to develop between the new administration and China, and then sell the weapons later.
"If Bush says, 'Yes, this April we will sell the Aegis,' that will start relations on a harder basis," offers Mei Penyi, a US-Sino expert with the Foreign Studies Institute in Beijing. "If Bush says, 'Yes, we will sell, but we will wait until later,' that will help," he adds. Aegis and Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) sales are reportedly seen by Chinese military leaders as potential offensive weapons, a start down the road toward space-based, missile defense systems, or theater missile defense. Experts say this perception could pressure the People's Liberation Army into an upward spiral of spending and procurement.
Yesterday, Finance Minister Xiang Huaicheng announced the largest increase in military spending in 20 years. At the March 5-17 NPC, a gathering of some 2,900 party members, Mr. Xiang said the boost will be an approximately 18 percent increase to $17.1 billion a year. The actual figure is thought by China watchers to be far higher.
The spending hike is partly an attempt by the PLA to attract and keep talented officers and soldiers, who used to be on the upper end of the Chinese state pay scale, but who have lost real earning power.
But it is also due to what Xiang calls "drastic changes" in the global power structure. Chinese officials argue the US is so outstripping the capability of other military forces that it could offer aid to Taiwan that prolongs the natural process of "reunification" with the island.
"Our conventional weaponry and general level of equipment strength is far behind even India," says one Beijing official. "This rise is needed to keep a sense of stability in the PLA."
Taiwanese officials claim not to have decided exactly what defense systems they will seek to purchase. In December, however, a Taipei delegation was reported to be in Washington lobbying for four Aegis destroyers and several diesel- propelled submarines, according to the Taipei Times.
According to US defense experts, Taiwan regularly seeks the most expensive and advanced weaponry that the US will sell. Some critics say Taiwan buys far more defense than it needs, in order to stay within the ambit of US protection.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor