Chinese military subverts policies Army defies U.S., pressures Taiwan

February 15, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Yesterday's first formal meeting between Jim Sasser, the newly installed U. S. ambassador to China, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin was polite enough. "Huanying," said President Jiang -- Welcome. "Xiexie," replied the new ambassador -- Thank you.

But beneath those niceties lay an undercurrent of confrontation that culminated this week with reports that China has massed 150,000 troops near the Strait of Taiwan because the island-province has been talking about independence.

And Ambassador Sasser would know that this and other points of conflict with China over the last several months are not entirely under President Jiang's control.

Chinese foreign policy has been partially hijacked by the military, which has taken a bellicose stand on a range of issues. Moderates at the top of the Chinese government, fearing they will be labelled unpatriotic, have felt compelled to to drape themselves with the flag.

Adding to these divisions at the top is a more fundamental change of attitude toward the West. A growing consensus among opinion-makers holds that the West, particularly the United States, isn't playing fair when it criticizes China, using a double standard designed to contain and control the world's most populous nation.

"The U.S. is trying to slow down the development of China and is trying to contain its direction," said Chu Shulong, a widely published writer on international relations. "It sees China as a threat and is trying to form a coalition to hold China back."

Transfer of missile technology to Iran is a case in point.

Chinese foreign policy experts point out that the sale came in response to a U.S. decision to sell Taiwan advanced F-16 fighters -- military equipment so superior to China's that it gives Taiwan the capability to penetrate deep into China and bomb its large cities.

"The Chinese say, 'You want to talk about missiles, let's talk about F-16s.' Their functions are very similar," says Jonathan Pollack, a senior adviser at the RAND Corp. who was recently in China for meetings with military officials.

Another, more fundamental problem that China has with U.S. criticism of such sales is that it is based on the supposition that China should adhere to treaties from which it was intentionally excluded. When the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international agreement to halt the spread of missile technology, was drawn up, China wasn't invited to the negotiating table.

"We're telling them, 'Here's the Great Power Rule Book. You sign on lines 9, 13 and 19 and be good boys and girls.' But it doesn't work like that. You want China vested in the system, you give them a seat at the table," Mr. Pollack said.

Reported sales to Pakistan of nuclear technology, which came to light last week, point to other problems.

The official explanation is that the technology -- magnets that can be used to enrich uranium -- also has civilian uses. China claims the sales follow the letter of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which experts say may be technically true but calls into question China's commitment to the spirit of a treaty that it did sign.

More likely, the nuclear technology sales reflect the division in China over foreign policy -- different power centers in the government pursuing their own policies.

"Are the Chinese speaking with one voice? We don't think so," Mr. Pollack said after meeting Chinese nuclear experts last week.

In principle, China's military is controlled by its civilian leaders, but the military has had periods of strong influence over the past 47 years of Communist rule.

Until recently, patriarch Deng Xiaoping dominated the military, but with Mr. Deng now 91 and too ill to govern, China is being led by a generation of men who lack influence with the military.

Military leaders also suspect that their new civilian bosses are not of Mr. Deng's caliber, a feeling reinforced by President Jiang's original call to downplay the significance of a visit to the United States by Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, before working it up into a major issue.

"The military has severe doubts about Jiang's judgment," said a Beijing-based Asian diplomat who wished to remain unidentified. 'He's having to act twice as tough to show that he's not weak."

Those efforts are most apparent on the issue of Taiwan's future.

In 1949, Mao Tse-tung's communist forces routed the U.S.-backed Nationalist Chinese, who fled to Taiwan.

During the first decades of the Cold War, Taiwan was regarded as a buffer against Communist expansion in Asia. But under the Nixon administration, Sino-U.S. relations thawed and a tacit alliance against the Soviet Union formed. Under the arrangement, the future of Taiwan was set aside.

After 1989, when communism started to collapse and China's leaders massacred protesters in downtown Beijing, that pragmatic approach disappeared.

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