Chinese official assails defense plan

Arms control chief says Beijing is prepared to open talks with U.S.

March 15, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - China's top nuclear disarmament official lashed out yesterday at the Bush administration's plan to build a national missile defense system, but said his government was willing to conduct talks on the divisive issue.

Sha Zukang, director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Department of Arms Control, said the attempt to protect the United States from incoming missiles could strip other countries of their nuclear deterrent and spark an arms race. But he said that Beijing welcomed the opportunity to air its differences with the new American president.

"China is ready to discuss [this] with the U.S.," Sha said during a news conference. "We have to co-exist with each other and cooperate with each other."

Sha's comments came in advance of a trip by Vice Premier Qian Qichen, China's senior diplomat, to the United States this weekend for the highest-level talks to date between Chinese officials and President Bush.

National missile defense could be one of the issues discussed between the two countries, which have had a roller-coaster relationship for years.

Bush has alarmed China and Russia, as well as many American allies, by pushing forward with plans for a defense shield that - in theory - could shoot down incoming missiles. Proponents say such a system could protect the United States from accidental launches or attacks from "rogue states," including North Korea, Libya and Iran.

Critics, including China, argue that a missile defense system would force other countries to spend huge sums to counteract the U.S. deployment and unravel the balance of power that has helped prevent nuclear war for decades.

"The NMD [national missile defense] program is, in essence, a U.S. program of unilateral nuclear expansion," Sha said. "China will not allow its legitimate means of self-defense to be weakened or even taken away by anyone in any way."

Sha also criticized U.S. proposals to extend missile defense to other nations, particularly Taiwan. U.S. officials have talked about trying to develop a theater missile defense system that could protect Taiwan, as well as South Korea, Japan and the American troops stationed there.

China has regarded Taiwan as a wayward province since General Chiang Kai-shek fled there in defeat at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Although Taiwan, an evolving democracy, operates as an independent state, Beijing has threatened to bring it back to the fold by force if necessary.

Beijing has placed hundreds of missiles along China's coast facing the island, which is just 100 miles away.

While the United States no longer maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it considers the island an old friend and has continued to sell it arms, enraging Beijing.

Taiwan remains the single most volatile issue in Sino-U.S. relations and has the potential to draw the two nations into war.

Next month, the Bush administration will consider an arms wish list from Taiwan, including destroyers equipped with the Aegis air defense system, which can track and shoot down incoming missiles. The deployment of Aegis could be seen as the first step in developing a theater missile defense for Taiwan.

Yesterday, Sha grew emotional as he reiterated China's insistence that the United States not sell the system to the Taiwanese.

"As you know, we hate the idea," said Sha. "Any sale is bad enough, but Aegis is the worst."

"Taiwan is a part of China. It's not your business. I'm being a little emotional because Taiwan is our territory."

Asked whether the Chinese might be willing to negotiate a reduction of missiles aimed at Taiwan in exchange for U.S. guarantees not to provide the theater missile defense for the island, Sha seemed to dismiss the idea.

"How to deploy our own missiles, it is our own business, isn't it?" he said. "We have never told others how they should deploy their missiles."

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