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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK
Analysis: China test for Bush
china
China demanded an apology from the US
By defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus

The mid-air incident between a US Navy spy-plane and a Chinese jet fighter pushed relations with Beijing to the top of the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda.

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China has long resented America's support for Taiwan
There is a lot of talk about a "new pragmatism" or a "new realism" in the Bush team's approach to the world which seems, at least in rhetorical terms, to mean a greater willingness to robustly defend US interests.

China's refusal to hand over either the US aircraft or its crew produced a test of wills between Washington and Beijing.

After an 11-day stand-off China announced the release of the crew. It followed a letter from the US which said it was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot presumed dead after the collision with the US spy plane on 1 April.

But the row is not over yet.

China resentment

Indeed, this episode could have a powerful impact in shaping the relationship between Washington and Beijing.


China is viewed as a potential military rival - a growing threat to many of America's allies in the region

The Bush team has made no secret of the fact that it does not share the Clinton administration's view of China as a strategic partner.

To many American conservatives, this always appeared a confection of wishful thinking, together with a mistaken assessment of the longer-term economic benefits to the US from bringing Beijing into the world economy.

The Bush administration sees its relationship with China far more in geo-strategic terms.

China is viewed as a potential military rival - a growing threat to many of America's allies in the region.

China's alleged assistance to Iraq in developing the infrastructure for Baghdad's air defence system caused serious doubts in the Bush White House about Beijing's wider intentions.

Bad timing

For its part, China has long resented America's support for Taiwan and its role as the dominant military power in the Pacific.

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China's military spending is rising
The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by US war-planes during the Kosovo war - the product of an intelligence blunder, according to the Americans - further heightened Chinese suspicions.

It is this legacy of mutual suspicion and distrust that has made the spy plane incident so potentially damaging.

Its timing also could not be worse. The Bush administration is in the process of weighing up further weapons sales to Taiwan.

A decision is expected within the next few weeks. Beijing has warned of the consequences if Washington goes ahead and sells its most advanced weaponry to Taipei.

China insists, for example, that the provision of Aegis-radar-equipped warships would give Taiwan the basis for a missile defence system of its own.

China's principal military threat to Taiwan comes from its long-range ballistic missiles. All the hints from Washington were that Mr Bush would opt to sell Taiwan less sophisticated systems.

Cyber-warfare

But Taiwan has strong supporters on Capitol Hill and Mr Bush might change his mind in the light of the spy plane dispute.

For a long time now one of the most popular themes for "future-war fiction" has been the struggle between China and the United States.

The Pentagon spends an immense amount of time and money watching China's military build-up.

But the evidence so far is open to a number of interpretations.

Yes, China's military spending is rising; yes, there are ambitious modernisation plans, especially for the Air Force and Navy; and yes, China seems fascinated by the possibilities of cyber-warfare or attacks on an enemy's vital computerised systems.

But most independent US experts still claim that it will take China years to modernise its armed forces to an extent where they would threaten US interests in the region.

At present China simply could not mount an invasion of Taiwan, though it could clearly fire missiles in its direction.

Critics of the Bush approach say that if the China brief is mishandled then there is a danger that the speculative fears of the fiction writers could turn into unpalatable strategic facts.

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See also:

03 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
China defies US on spy plane
22 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Tension in US-China talks
30 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
China arrests another US academic
23 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Key Chinese army officer defects
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