Chinese Warn U.S. Not to Arm Taiwan
Official Says Transfer Of Missile Defenses Would Be 'Last Straw'
By John Pomfret
The senior official -- in a three-hour briefing for journalists from four countries -- stopped short of threatening direct military action against the island of 21 million people if the transfers occurred. However, the official said such transfers would be considered a hostile act and would "certainly lead to serious consequences."
"If we did the same thing to an American state, how would they feel?" asked the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name or position. Reiterating China's stance that Taiwan is and always will be part of China, he asked again: "Pumping F-16s and missile defense systems into an American state -- how would they feel?
"There is one thing that's more important than money. That's dignity, sovereignty and integrity. I'm sure that the Chinese people are ready to die for it."
[Early today, Reuters news agency reported that former U.S. defense secretary William Perry will visit Taiwan on Sunday, according to an official of Taiwan's Foreign Ministry. The official declined to confirm local newspaper reports that Perry will meet President Lee Teng-hui and other senior government officials to discuss Taiwan-China relations.]
The senior Chinese official's remarks today were China's most specific and pointed criticism of U.S. proposals to develop ways of shielding Taiwan from missile attack, and they returned the controversial subject of Taiwan to the forefront of U.S.-China relations. Using language that alternated between harsh and humorous, the official articulately presented China's fears that Washington continues to scheme to limit China's influence in the region.
The briefing, which centered on Taiwan, Japan and North Korea, provided an intensive focus on China's views and thereby filled an important gap in the debate about U.S.-China relations, which have suffered in recent months because of tensions over security matters, human rights and trade.
These ties are expected to encounter further strain in Washington with the expected publication in coming weeks of an unclassified version of a congressional report outlining instances of China's efforts to acquire U.S. technology that is ostensibly commercial in nature but can be used for military purposes. The Pentagon is also preparing a report on the feasibility of fielding antimissile defense systems in Asia.
China's sensitivities have been further heightened by the sale of several U.S. Patriot antimissile batteries to Taiwan as well as a Taiwanese request to buy Aegis destroyers, which the Pentagon plans to equip with antimissile defenses within the coming decade.
Moreover, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji is scheduled to travel to the United States next month, and the issue could complicate his visit.
In presenting such a broad view of China's security concerns, the official underscored a widening gap between U.S. and Chinese security interests in Asia. Simply put, the United States believes security in East Asia is founded in a string of military agreements between Washington and Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. China, which has no military allies, opposes such alliances as "relics" of the Cold War. The official described this contradiction as a "fundamental question."
The official's comments also underscored that Americans, in recent talks with their Chinese counterparts, have failed to assuage China's concerns. The Chinese official appeared to doubt American assertions that the United States is not seeking to contain China and that its actions in Asia are based on neither a desire to hawk weapons nor to dominate the region's future. On the brighter side, the official did assert that U.S.-China relations had progressed a great deal since normalization in 1979. And he revealed, without providing details, that U.S. and Chinese officials have worked to stop Chinese and American firms from selling weapons of mass destruction to what he called, somewhat facetiously, "rogue" states, which he did not name.
"We do have violations" of China's weapons proliferation regulations, he said.
Since last year, China has become increasingly vexed as the United States has weighed the development of missile defense systems for its continental borders and for its allies and American military installations abroad. North Korea's firing of a three-stage rocket last Aug. 31 over Japanese territory intensified U.S. development efforts and raised the possibility that Japan could participate in related research. More than 100,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Asia, including 37,000 in South Korea.
While deployment of effective antimissile defense technology is years away, the Pentagon in January announced it was budgeting an extra $6.6 billion to put in place a system for defending the United States as early as 2005. Congress ordered the Pentagon last year to study methods of transferring similar antimissile technology to Taiwan as part of a theater, or regional, defense system.
Although the Pentagon predicts that its Aegis ships will not have the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles until 2007 at the earliest, the Chinese official said that sales to Taipei of the Aegis system would seriously threaten U.S. ties with China. It could be treated more seriously by Beijing than the decision by President Bush in 1992 to sell F-16s to Taiwan, the official added. That decision rocked U.S.-China relations for almost a year.
The last time the United States and China faced off over Taiwan was in March 1996 when the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups near Taiwan during Chinese live-fire military exercises off Taiwan. James Mulvenon, a specialist on Chinese defense with Rand Corp., has said he worries that if the United States aids Taiwan's antimissile defense capability, China will seize the opportunity to further menace Taiwan.
If the Aegis sale goes through, the Chinese official warned, it would mean the resumption of a "semi-alliance" between the United States and Taiwan. Adding that to Washington's strengthened defense cooperation with Japan, which includes "surrounding areas," the message is clear to China, the official said: it amounts to containment.
"Can a sovereign state like China tolerate that?" he asked.
Politics appears to be a key reason that China opposes American sales of antimissile systems to Taiwan. "If [theater missile defense] is in place, [Taiwan] may have a false sense of security," the official said. "They may think they are well protected and advocate independence. . . . We can't tolerate independence." China has said it reserves the right to attack Taiwan if the island declares independence.
The Chinese official contradicted American claims made during Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's visit this week that U.S. officials cleared up what they called Chinese "misunderstandings" about proposals in the United States for antimissile defense systems.
The Americans "tried to 'pacify' China," the official said. " 'Please don't worry, don't overreact. We need to improve our technology. It will take 10 years.' That's what they've been telling us."
At one point, he charged that the United States was considering installing a missile defense system as a means to "increase their military arms sales to Taiwan." At another, he said the United States and Japan were exaggerating the military threat of missile attacks from North Korea to implement theater missile defense as a "pretext to strengthen their military alliance," and maintain their military domination over the region.
"Look at North Korea," he said, of the hermetic nation that is suffering a withering famine and deepening economic crisis. "They are a great people, a very proud people but it is a small country. . . . To say North Korea is posing such a huge security threat to a superpower, the only superpower in the world . . . You expect us to trust that?"
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company