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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Arms to China: Tiny Deal or End to Ban?

April 15, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration seems to be on the verge of a terrible idea: It is about to take the first small step toward lifting the ban on arms sales to China.

For months now, the administration has been trying to decide whether to permit Sikorsky Aircraft to sell spare parts and equipment for helicopters that the company originally sold to China in 1984.

So far, such sales have been blocked by one of the so-called "Tiananmen sanctions." On June 6, 1989, two days after Chinese troops brought a bloody end to the democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, President Bush prohibited the sale of any military-related equipment from the United States to China.

For many months now, Sikorsky has been lobbying the Clinton administration for a special waiver that would permit the sale of replacement engines and other spare parts for the Chinese helicopters. In January, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen suggested he might support this idea.

Within the administration, nearly everyone insists this would be just a one-shot deal that would not lead to anything else in the way of arms sales.

These are just spare parts, explain American officials. The helicopters Sikorsky originally sold are supposedly for civilian, not military use (although, in fact, they have been flown by the Chinese People's Liberation Army).

So what's wrong with this little deal for spare parts? Plenty, if you look at the larger context.

The salient fact is that for the last several years, Western defense industries, whose international markets have been shrinking with the end of the Cold War, have been eagerly hoping to begin selling weapons systems to China again, as they did in the 1980s before the Tiananmen crackdown.

For weapons manufacturers, China looks like a growing market. In this decade, Beijing has been forced to get military technology from Russia and Israel, which have no strictures against selling weapons systems to China.

Back in 1989, the European Union followed the lead of the United States by imposing its own prohibition on arms sales to China. But European defense companies are eager to be able to sell their hardware to China again. On a visit to Beijing last year, then-French Defense Minister Charles Millon said he hoped the EU's ban could be lifted.

Now, the Europeans seem to be looking for some signal or action in Washington that would provide an excuse for them to sell arms to China again. And if the Clinton administration clears the way for the Sikorsky sale, that could be just the ticket.

"We are watching that [Sikorsky] case very closely," admitted one European diplomat recently.

If the EU lifts its arms ban, would America then follow suit? Clinton administration officials have insisted for years that the United States is not about to open the way for new arms sales to China.

The sanctions imposed by the Bush administration originally included a prohibition on contacts between American military officials and the PLA. President Clinton lifted that ban during his first year in office.

Before Secretary of Defense William J. Perry made a groundbreaking visit to China in 1994, he stressed repeatedly that the renewed ties between the Pentagon and the Chinese army would not lead to arms sales.

"Arms cooperation programs . . . are not part of my vision of what we'll be doing with China," Perry said in an interview with The Times. "I just don't see that it serves our national security interest to do that."

What Perry said then remains official U.S. policy today. One Pentagon official said recently it was "impossible" and "inconceivable" that the United States would begin to sell military equipment to China. He noted that any such policy change would arouse intense opposition in Congress.

On that score, he's right. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the House Policy Committee, said Tuesday that "changing the status quo on arms sales [to China] would be reckless." Even a sale of spare parts, Cox said, would be "enormously significant."

Still, what seems "inconceivable" today could become commonplace tomorrow. Another Clinton administration official said the question of American arms sales to China is "premature"--suggesting that such transactions won't take place right now, but remain a possibility in the future.

"Over the long term, if the Europeans move in this area, there will be pressure from [the U.S. defense] industry," this official acknowledged.

The United States sometimes lets Europe take the lead on sensitive policy questions and then changes American policy to fall into line. Only last month, the administration dropped its long-standing support for a United Nations resolution condemning China's human rights record shortly after the EU had done the same thing.

In the field of military hardware, the Bush administration in 1992 approved the sale of F-16 warplanes to Taiwan after it became clear that France was preparing to sell its own Mirage jets to the island's Nationalist government.

Thus, as much as the Clinton administration might try to portray the Sikorsky sale as a one-shot deal, the reality is that it could prove to have much larger implications.

To paraphrase Neil Armstrong: One small spare-parts deal for China, one giant leap toward a new, world-class international arms race for Western defense industries.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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