U.S. worried about buildup in China's defense budget

Powell promises to monitor forces for threat to interests

March 07, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. officials expressed concern yesterday over Beijing's announced plans to significantly boost its defense spending but suggested that the escalation will not necessarily lead to a more dangerous, more hostile China.

"We will be watching their buildup carefully, see how they spend this money, see if it in any way is threatening to our interests in the region or whether it's just modernization," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. But, he added, "we are not an enemy of China, nor need China view us as an enemy."

Pressing forward with policies on human rights, a national missile defense and weapons sales to Taiwan that are sharply opposed by Beijing, the Bush administration apparently also is trying to appease the Chinese in rhetoric, if not actions.

"The fact that the Chinese are modernizing their defense forces is not new," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman. "They have made their goals in this area very clear for several years now."

Quigley added that the size of China's military increase is not as important as "how do you use those forces, what policies do you put in place and what activities those forces engage in."

However, a State Department official said the department was "concerned" about the buildup and would monitor it closely.

Chinese Finance Minister Xiang Huaicheng announced yesterday Beijing's plan to raise defense spending to $17.1 billion this year - a 17.7 percent increase, one of the largest in the past decade.

The increase, Xiang told the national legislature in Beijing, is needed "to adapt to drastic changes in the military situation of the world and prepare for defense and combat given the conditions of modern technology."

Western defense analysts say the $17.1 billion figure significantly underestimates China's military spending. Beijing's outlays on defense probably exceed $50 billion, they say, which is a significant investment but well short of the Pentagon's $300 billion annual budget.

But nobody disagrees that China is sharply increasing its defense budget.

Although the Bush administration's China policy continues to unfold, some analysts say the signs point toward a new downturn in U.S.-China relations. "Each side is reacting to the behavior and rhetoric of the other," said David M. Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "The trends are not reassuring to those that want a stable, productive U.S.-China relationship in the future."

Xiang's statement on the planned escalation in military spending coincided with new Chinese protests against potential weapons sales to Taiwan and a denial by Beijing of Washington's charge that it helped build military communications links for Iraq.

The conclusion of a "serious investigation" shows that "Chinese enterprises and corporations have not assisted Iraq in building the fiber-optic cable project used for air defense," said Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jaixuan.

At a news conference, Tang alleged that Washington made the accusations of Iraqi assistance, which would violate United Nations sanctions, to divert world attention from the Feb. 16 U.S. bombing of Iraqi defense bases.

U.S. officials did not back away from that allegation yesterday and said the issue of Chinese assistance to Iraq is not closed, despite Tang's denial.

"Essentially it's an ongoing thing, and we're going to continue to pursue it with the Chinese," said the State Department official.

Tang also sharply warned Washington against selling sophisticated new defense systems to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.

Taiwan is reported to have asked the United States for four destroyers equipped with Aegis anti-missile systems as well as the PAC-3 anti-missile missile. Next month Washington is expected to announce its annual batch of weapons sales to Taiwan.

"The U.S. side should come to the recognition of the serious dangers involved" in supplying weapons to Taiwan, Tang said. "It should rein in its wild horse riding on the side of the precipice."

China has sent two delegations to Washington in the early days of the Bush administration to lobby against stepped-up arms sales to Taiwan. Vice Premier Qian Qichen will visit Washington this month, presumably carrying the same message.

By law, the United States must supply Taiwan with the equipment it needs to defend itself. The Bush administration reiterated its commitment to do so yesterday but declined to disclose details of any planned hardware sales.

Yesterday, Tang decried a U.S. decision to sponsor a motion of censure against China at the next meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Last week, the State Department identified China as one of the world's top violators of human rights.

"I would like to advise the United States to get rid of its perverted ways on this question as soon as possible and return to the road of dialogue," Tang said.

China has exhibited a softer tone in its dialogue with Taiwan in recent months and relaxed controls on commercial links with the offshore island.

Even so, Beijing and Washington are subject to domestic political pressures that are increasing the friction in their relationship with each other, Lampton said.

The Bush administration is eager to make its mark by establishing a firmer line with China on Taiwan, human rights and strategic defense than that drawn by former President Bill Clinton.

At the same time, the prospect of a regime change in Beijing in the not too distant future is spawning tough talk from ambitious Chinese politicians anxious to establish their hawkish credentials against Washington.

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