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The BBC's Clive Myrie
"The Taiwanese are nervous, the military more anxious than anyone else"
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Tuesday, 17 April, 2001, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Analysis: US-China military rivalry
Chinese Dongfeng 31 long-range missile
US officials say China poses a growing threat to Taiwan
By Jon Leyne in Washington

The United States is still basking in the rosy glow that came with the return of its air crew after the spy plane showdown with China.

But while the immediate crisis in US-China relations is over, some vital issues must still be settled.

Later this month, President George W Bush is to decide whether to sell Taiwan a package of high-tech armaments its government has asked for - a deal China bitterly opposes.

In Washington the hawks are in the ascendant. They are already warning of a new military threat from China.

Taiwan sailors
China wants to stop hi-tech weapons sales to Taiwan
James Lilley, who was US ambassador to Beijing during the previous Bush administration, says people should "take a cold-blooded look" at China's statements and actions.

"It's not very pleasant. Take it as it is. Don't wish it away in terms of saying 'they don't have a budget that matches ours,' because they lie about their budget. They don't tell you the truth," he said.

'Obsolete' equipment

But the view from the US intelligence community is vastly different.

John Pike, a security analyst with the Washington consultants Global Security, says nearly all of China's military equipment is obsolete.

"In fact their front-line equipment would really put them pretty far down on any list when you look at military capabilities.

"It's reported, for instance, that during the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis the Chinese were simply unable to track the American aircraft-carrier battle groups as they approached the Taiwan Straits," Mr Pike says.

The inability of the most populous nation on earth to spot two massive US aircraft-carrier battle groups within missile range from its coast was a spectacular display of impotence.

Taiwan tensions

But China has openly advertised its military build-up, specifically targeted at reunification with Taiwan.

An invasion is still impossible and unthinkable.


The United States has a policy of maintaining the military balance across the Taiwan Straits

John Pike, Global Security analyst

Instead, says Professor Bernard Cole of the US National War College, China is trying to up the stakes to deter the United States from coming to the defence of Taiwan.

"If the United States sends aircraft-carrier battle groups to the vicinity of Taiwan right now there's little to slow those carrier battle groups down.

"However, if the United States naval commander is faced with, say, two dozen or three dozen Chinese submarines having been sent out from their home ports, then the naval commander is going to have to slow his approach to Taiwan, and it may give the Chinese that window of opportunity."

Hence the current burning issue: Should the United States respond by selling Taiwan the latest technology, the Aegis-class destroyers the Taiwanese Government are itching to get their hands on?

"Probably not," says Mr Pike.

"The United States has a policy of maintaining the military balance across the Taiwan Straits, and the Aegis-class destroyers would give Taiwan capabilities that are far beyond those that the Chinese presently possesses," he says.

'Cliches'

Ambassador Lilley believes the US should not decide yet. But he cautions against believing "cliches" about the poor state of the Chinese military.


The age of innocence we hope is going over the horizon

James Lilley, former US ambassador to Beijing

"They have an old expression - 'when capable, feign incapacity' - and there are five suckers born every minute that buy onto it. 'Junkyard army,' 'can't shoot straight,' 'way behind the United States,' 'one-fiftieth of our military budget' - you know all the cliches. They start them, we pick them up."

He believes the Bush administration has opened a new chapter of realism in its relations with China.

"The age of innocence we hope is going over the horizon.

"Bush is trying to push this in a positive direction. He's got advisers that told him - and they carried the message to the Chinese - it's time to stop, it's time to stop - you've worked your tactical advantage for all its worth, now your serious interests will be affected."

The issue will be right at the top of the US security agenda in the coming days.

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See also:

17 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
US to demand spy plane's return
16 Apr 01 | Americas
US plays down carrier deployment
15 Apr 01 | Americas
In pictures: Homecoming
13 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
America ponders 'defeat'
05 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Historic China-Taiwan trip
21 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Q&A: Taiwan's relations with China
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