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Transfer of Aegis Radar Might Harm
Peaceful Dialogue, China's Qian Says

The Wall Street Journal, March 21

By PAUL E. STEIGER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

NEW YORK -- On the eve of his meeting with President Bush and top U.S. national-security aides this week, China's vice premier said that an administration sale to Taiwan of destroyers equipped with the sophisticated Aegis radar system would be a "grave violation" of a 1982 agreement with China signed by then-President Reagan. He said such an action would move China and Taiwan away from peaceful dialogue on their differences and toward a "military solution."

 

The vice premier, Qian Qichen, used a New York breakfast meeting with U.S. journalists to give an unusually broad outline of his negotiating position in advance of meetings with Washington officials that start Wednesday and culminate in a session with President Bush on Thursday. Those talks may force the White House to decide, very early in the new administration, some crucial parameters on how it will deal with the world's largest nation, its most significant potential rival.

 

Mr. Qian repeated but played down Chinese opposition to the president's intention to develop missile defenses, making clear that limiting arm sales to Taiwan tops his agenda. The scope of the sales is expected to be decided in April.

 

He expressed great enthusiasm for an expected visit by the president to China in October, to attend a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Shanghai and then to meet President Jiang Zemin in Beijing. In general, he painted an optimistic vision of prospects for relations between the two countries, provided that tensions don't flare over Taiwan.

 

Mr. Qian gave China's most detailed description yet of how it became involved in Iraq's obtaining of fiber-optic networks, conceding that some such equipment from China has been installed in Iraq but through a circuitous route without Beijing's blessing. He said people involved have been "criticized severely" and "we recalled those personnel."

 

He defended increases in China's defense spending, saying that at $17 billion a year it amounted to 5% of what the U.S. is spending, one third of Japan's level and 50% of the United Kingdom's. And he took a slap at one of China's most persistent critics in Congress, Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Qian said he would encourage the North Carolina Republican "to summon the courage to visit China" and see for himself that political conditions there aren't as negative as he believes.

 

Aside from that brief hard-edged moment, Mr. Qian was for the most part genial and low-key, even when issuing stern warnings on Taiwan. The Chinese stance on Taiwan is that eventual unification of the island and the mainland should proceed peacefully, provided that outsiders don't interfere. Recently, Beijing officials have softened assertions that Taiwan is a "renegade province." Mr. Qian said both are equal participants in a dialogue over unification, a process he said is threatened by an aggressive minority in Taiwan promoting independence and by some American conservatives supporting them.

 

Mr. Qian said the sale of the Aegis system to Taiwan would breach Washington's 1982 pledge that future sales wouldn't exceed then-current levels either in quantity or in quality. The agreement -- enshrined in U.S.-China relations as the "Third Communique" -- has been a recurring area of friction. Even as it has upgraded its military and deployed hundreds of missiles opposite Taiwan, Beijing has insisted Washington stick to the pact.

 

Washington argues that arms sales would be reduced as tensions in the Taiwan Strait are lowered. It also has an obligation under U.S. law to make sure that Taiwan can defend itself. An Aegis sale would force China to think more in terms of a military solution of the Taiwan issue, Mr. Qian said. Asked if that meant a sale would provoke an immediate military response from Beijing, he answered: "That all depends on the circumstances."

 

The administration has a variety of options, including allowing the Aegis sale to go forward. For example, it can permit the sale of the destroyers and other arms but withhold the radar system until it sees whether China reduces the number of missiles deployed near Taiwan. Last year the Clinton administration postponed a decision on the Aegis system, but permitted the sale of air-to-air defensive missiles and a different long-range radar system.

 

Mr. Qian repeated China's opposition to a U.S. missile-defense system, saying it could break the "global equilibrium" and create a crisis. But he expressed more concern about the possibility that Taiwan would be allowed to link into a future U.S. theater-missile-defense system. The Aegis system might serve as a platform for such participation. In any case, the missile-defense issue seemed to evoke less categorical opposition than an Aegis sale, which would be the most significant U.S.-Taiwan arms deal since President Bush's father, as president, permitted sales of F-16 fighters to Taiwan in 1992.

 

On Iraq's acquisition of Chinese fiber-optic technology, Mr. Qian said reports of a sale "caught us unaware," and that Beijing's investigation showed that while no Chinese company had signed a contract with Iraq and no fiber-optic systems were sold directly to that country, in violation of United Nations rules, some were sold to "neighboring countries" and from there made their way into Iraq.

 

-- Charles Hutzler in Beijing and Carla Anne Robbins in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Paul Steiger at paul.steiger@wsj.com

 
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