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Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 12:06 GMT
Analysis: Tension in US-China talks
A Chinese-made model kit on sale in Taipei used as a vehicle for anti-US propaganda
Propaganda war: A Chinese model kit of a US destroyer labelled: "The ship Taiwan won't be able to buy"
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing

After two months of acrimonious exchanges with China, President George W Bush's administration is taking its first steps in Sino-US relations, mindful of his election pledge to adopt a firm line with Beijing.

President Bush's first face-to-face meeting with a high-level Chinese official, Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen, comes at a crucial moment.

In the next few weeks the US must decide whether to sell sophisticated new weapons systems to Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province.

China's Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen
Qian Qichen wants Washington to halt technology sales

Beijing is also convinced that it is the target of Washington's proposed National Missile Defence (NMD) system.

Such issues have the potential to push relations between the US and China down the road to greater antagonism and even conflict.

Mission impossible?

Vice Premier Qian has been sent to Washington with a clear mission: to stop the United States supplying Taiwan with sophisticated new weapons, including ships equipped with the advanced Aegis battle management system.

Taiwan is a part of China... it is none of your business!

Sha Zukang, arms negotiator

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the issue to China.

Days before Mr Qian's visit, China's top arms negotiator Sha Zukang was asked what all the fuss is about.

His reaction was almost apoplectic: "Taiwan is the territory of China, but some people treat it as one of their states which is most ridiculous!

"Taiwan is a part of China... it is none of your business!"

But the United States considers Taiwan very much its business.

During a recent visit to Beijing, Admiral Denis Blair, Commander of the US Pacific fleet, made it clear that the US will continue to help defend Taiwan for as long as China continues to threaten the island.

Taiwanese army soldiers load a US-made anti-aircraft gun during routine exercises
Military exercises by Taiwan fuel China's anger
He said that while today there are roughly 300 missiles targeted at Taiwan, Beijing appears to be adding more at the rate of about 50 a year.

"I think it is important that the Chinese make the connection between what they deploy on their side of the strait and the types of technologies the US might make available to Taiwan," Admiral Blair said.

Taiwan is only one of the potential political minefields in the way of US-China relations.

In Beijing America's plans to build a National Missile Defence (NMD) system are hated almost as much.

The Bush administration says it needs NMD to defend the US against missile attack from rogue states like North Korea and Iran, but many Chinese see NMD as particularly directed against them.

Military ambitions

For years China's huge military has been over manned and under funded.

Most of its tanks and aircraft are obsolete designs dating from the 1950's.

If America prepares for war then what we can do?

Yan Xuetong, Qinghua University
Now that is changing: Troop numbers are being slashed and new money is pouring in.

Military spending will increase by nearly one fifth this year alone.

Professor Yan Xuetong of Beijing's Qinghua University says the spending is needed to deal with the growing threat from the US.

"Officially the Pentagon regards China as the number one target for military manoeuvres.

"If America prepares for war then what we can do?"

China is developing its own new missiles, including cruise missiles, and buying powerful long range fighter aircraft, submarines and sophisticated navy missile destroyers from Russia.

For the first time China is acquiring the ability to project military force well beyond its own shores.

Regional power play

US President George W Bush
Who is smiling now? US-China relations are under strain

China says it has no ambitions beyond the return of Taiwan, but many of its neighbours fear its plans for regional dominance go much further.

Evan Medieros, an arms control expert at the Monterey Institute in California, says the key characteristic of China's military policy and procurement is uncertainty.

"Nobody knows where China is going.

"The only indications they give are these procurement of new weapons systems, increase in the military budget, and some vague statements about commitment to regional security by the leaders, which are not seen as reliable," Mr Medieros.

In Asia the old Cold War certainties have gone, replaced by a dangerous new state of flux.

America's once unquestioned dominance in the region faces a growing challenge from a newly assertive and increasingly powerful China.

How Washington handles that challenge will have bearing not just on its relationship with Beijing, but on the security and stability of the whole Asia Pacific region.

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