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U.S. Links With China's Military Raise Concerns

October 09, 1994|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the last two months, the Pentagon has moved quietly but rapidly to develop military ties with the Chinese People's Liberation Army, raising questions in the United States and among Asian governments about what the new relationship means and where it is headed.

Two months ago, in a private ceremony, a top Chinese general received the same sort of honor cordon at the Pentagon that Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide recently received on nationwide television. Last month, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, visited Beijing for talks and a banquet with the Chinese army's air force commander.

The new ties bear the personal imprimatur of Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who has been active in promoting cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese defense industries since his days as a senior Pentagon official in the Jimmy Carter Administration.

Perry, who has maintained personal ties with some senior Chinese military leaders, will cement the new relationship with the Chinese army next week, when he pays his own visit to Beijing and establishes a U.S.-China commission to discuss possible cooperation between the two countries' defense industries.

"I think it is important for our government to have a good working relationship with a country as important as China. I think that should include a defense-to-defense relationship," Perry said in an interview with The Times last week.

He said his ties with Chinese leaders "will be an asset in developing a good relationship. The Chinese are very strong . . . for what they call old friends.

"We've got some hard problems to work out with them," the defense secretary said, citing China's sales of missiles to Pakistan and other countries and the U.S. effort to secure more Chinese help in stopping North Korea's nuclear program. And on Friday, China conducted its second nuclear test this year, defying pressure to join an international nuclear-testing moratorium.

A number of observers, including some U.S. government officials, believe that the new links will pave the way for the sale of military-related technology from American companies to China.

"It's inevitably going to lead to that," one U.S. government official said.

Michael D. Swaine, a RAND Corp. specialist on the Chinese army, observed of U.S. policy-makers: "They seem to be trying to find a way to create some kind of sales without raising all kinds of reactions from Congress. The logic of the situation . . . is that the Clinton Administration is going to want to provide further assistance to U.S. businesses in China, including in areas that are defense-related."

But Perry categorically denied that there will be any discussion of arms sales, American technology or any other American help for China's military during his trip.

"Nothing that I will be doing (in China) will be designed to enhance China's military capability," he said. "It may be that the Chinese Defense Ministry will make proposals to us that could involve a strengthening of their military activity. That's not what we're there to do."

Although Pentagon officials say they have no intention of opening the way for direct government-to-government arms sales, they leave open the possibility of American sales of civilian technology with military applications--such as computers, radar and advanced electronics.

Perry acknowledged that the United States might someday--but not on his forthcoming trip--seek to establish a military cooperation program with China.

"I never say never," he said, "but I don't now conceive of the circumstances in which I would see it as in our security interests to be taking actions to deliberately plan to strengthen the military capability of China. That's not what we're there to do."

Pentagon officials also portray the new effort as a way of trying to deal with China as a future military superpower. They say they want to find out what the Chinese military is doing and to reassure its leaders, through direct contact, that the Pentagon does not view China as an enemy.

Yet the military links between the United States and China have begun to raise eyebrows in places such as Russia, India, Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries, all of which are wary of China's growing military power and loath to have the United States do anything that would make China any stronger than it is.

Perry said that top leaders of other Asian countries "have all urged me to form a strong relationship with China, and have been at times critical of our government for not working more closely with China."

But he acknowledged that none of the other Asian leaders "would propose today that we be involved today in arms sales to China or cooperative weapons development programs with China."

The ties are controversial in Washington, where critics worry about the moral implications and the impact inside China of dealing with its army.

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