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US Not Ready for China Tradeoff Over Missile Defense - 2001-09-07

The Bush administration is denying reports that it is ready to offer a tradeoff to China in exchange for Beijing's acceptance of the planned U.S. missile defense program. The administration comments may reflect a lack of consensus about the U.S. approach to China on this issue.

As part of its effort to seek international support for the planned missile defense system, the Bush administration says it will give Chinese officials intensive briefings about U.S. plans. But the administration says it will not offer concessions such as allowing China to resume nuclear testing or acquiescing to its nuclear missile buildup.

In testimony before Congress this week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld echoed the comments of other administration officials who have sought to clarify the administration's policy. He said, "The suggestion that the United States has or is poised to approve of China's military and nuclear buildup for some reason in exchange for something is simply not the case."

The statements followed last weekend's New York Times report that quoted unnamed senior administration officials as saying the United States is ready to tell China it has no objections to the expansion of its nuclear missile arsenal and may consider a resumption of nuclear testing. The unnamed officials are reported as saying the new approach is intended to convince China that the missile defense shield is not aimed at undermining China but instead is targeted at so-called rogue states.

For China specialist James Mulvenon, the Bush administration has been sending out confusing signals. "I don't think it reflects a coordinated policy which I think is borne out by the fact that they've been so feverishly backpedaling from what was suggested over the weekend," he said. "What we're really talking about here is the first attempts by the Bush administration to grapple with this issue of Chinese resistance to national missile defense."

Mr. Mulvenon, a political scientist at Rand, a nonprofit, federally funded research organization, says it's common knowledge that China has had a nuclear weapons modernization program for more than 30 years. But he adds the pace of that modernization has been slow and erratic. If the Chinese believe the U.S. missile defense system would negate their current small nuclear arsenal, Mr. Mulvenon says China could feel compelled to build up its missile force more than originally planned.

According to Mr. Mulvenon, U.S. briefings to Chinese officials will include the same information offered to European countries and Russia and are not likely to give the Chinese the details they need. "Now, here's what the Chinese are facing," he continued. "They're facing a five-to-10-year time frame of budgeting in order to do the planning to build the kind of missile forces they want to have in 2010. If the U.S. administration can't tell them what the architecture of missile defenses is going to look like, unfortunately the Chinese are going to have to [plan for a] worst case, and they're going to have to build a maximalist position rather than a minimalist position."

For to Mr. Mulvenon, the goal of U.S. policy should be to prevent the Chinese from feeling backed into a corner where they believe they have to resume nuclear testing and to ensure that China is engaged in only a minimal strategic nuclear buildup. Finally, he says, the United States should be striving to get China's tacit acceptance of a limited American missile defense program.

Mr. Mulvenon says that requires the Bush administration to decide precisely how it wants to deal with China. "There's a debate at the heart of this administration about whether in fact China's deterrent is even legitimate or whether in fact China should be treated as a top-ranked nuclear power and afforded the kind of strategic dialogue we've had with other countries," he went on to say. "China's forces are sort of in the middle there, and we have to decide: are they a big rogue or a small Russia? My feeling is, given China's importance and its size and complexity, that we ought to treat them as an established nuclear power and not seek to obviate their nuclear deterrent."

A statement issued by the White House press secretary this week repeats that the missile defense program does not threaten China but seeks to counter limited missile threats from rogue states and to avoid accidental launches. The statement says the U.S. missile defense program can contribute to stability in Asia.

The statement goes on to say China's modernization effort is not necessary and not good for regional peace and stability and that view will be made clear to Chinese officials.