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News Update
01-03-05, 23:15
U.S. Lawmakers Warn Europe on Arms Sales to China


WASHINGTON, March 1 - Senior members of Congress from both parties emerged from a meeting with President Bush on Tuesday warning Europe that if it lifts its ban on arms sales to China, the United States may retaliate with severe restrictions on technology sales to European companies.

The warning came after Mr. Bush, on his trip to Europe last week, twice cautioned the Europeans not to lift the restrictions, in place for 15 years. His insistence was based, at least in part, on a new American intelligence assessment that Beijing is rapidly becoming better equipped to carry out a sophisticated invasion of Taiwan and to counter any effort by the United States to react to such an attack, administration officials and intelligence analysts say.

After the White House meeting on Tuesday, Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that if the ban is lifted - as European leaders have said they plan to do in coming months - Congress could react with "a prohibition on a great number of technical skills and materials, or products, being available to Europeans." The ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, called a lifting of the ban "a nonstarter with Congress."

Their statements reinforce warnings that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made in meetings with Europeans over the past several weeks that the weapons sales would amount to a transfer of even more sophisticated military technology to China. But European officials say that the concerns are overstated, and that they are considering a compromise proposal that would keep advanced technologies from being exported.

Although Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice have spoken publicly about the sale of heavy weapons, Pentagon officials say the biggest concern is the technology that goes with it, including radar and battlefield communication systems that could take China's rapid military buildup to a new level. And to make their case, the officials have begun to discuss how such technology would give China an increased ability to intimidate Taiwan with the threat of invasion if it moves too aggressively toward independence.

The motivations for the officials to discuss this intelligence in interviews over the past two weeks are varied, and certainly include concerns about how the Chinese buildup could affect American security interests. But the discussion also comes as Congress takes up Mr. Bush's new spending proposals, which devote a majority of supplemental funding to land forces and the war in Iraq, while missions related to perceived threats from China fall mainly to the Navy and the Air Force.

In addition, some administration hawks are concerned about China's rapid growth as a military power in the Pacific at a time that American attention is focused on the Middle East.

The new intelligence reports indicate that since Mr. Bush came to office, China has raced ahead with one of the most ambitious military buildups in the world - including building 23 new amphibious assault ships that could ferry tanks, armored vehicles and troops across the 100 miles to Taiwan, and 13 new attack submarines.

"Their amphibious assault shipbuilding alone equals the entire U.S. Navy shipbuilding since 2002," one intelligence official said.

The official said Chinese military purchases abroad and domestic production of ships and warplanes "definitely represents a significant increase in overall capacity." At the same time, any advances in radar and communications ability would improve how rapidly and effectively those ships and planes could support an invasion or counter American moves in the region.

Military experts in European capitals and in Washington say they do not dispute the American intelligence reports on the growth in quality and quantity of Chinese arms. But European political leaders argue that the sanctions were placed to punish China because of its killing of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 16 years ago, not because of its military power.

Now that a new generation of leaders has taken over in Beijing, they say, the specific cause of the sanctions is removed.

In contrast, Japan has sided with the United States in asserting a growing Chinese threat to Taiwan, publicly inserting those concerns for the first time into a joint security statement issued in recent days.

The latest intelligence reports give the fullest sense to date of what China has actually fielded in the past several years, and how, as the new director of central intelligence, Porter J. Goss, recently told Congress, the weaponry could "tilt the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait."

The United States has deliberately left vague whether or how it would defend Taiwan in the event of invasion. The last time a crisis erupted in the region, President Clinton put a carrier near the Taiwan Strait - but not inside it - as a caution to Beijing.

That event prompted a rethinking of military strategy in Beijing, China experts say. One intelligence official noted that China's military expansion has tried to fill gaps that have been identified in a range of Pentagon reports and public American intelligence estimates.

The intelligence official said: "What the Chinese have systematically done is look at what other people have said about them, and said, 'Fine. I don't have a credible amphibious capability. Well, I'm going to build one. I don't have a credible surface force that can provide adequate air cover and surface-to-surface strike capability against incoming fleets. Fine, I'll build that. Submarines worry you? Fine, I'll buy them or I'll build them.' "

"It's a modernization across the force," the official added.

China's growing submarine fleet, which includes new nuclear- and conventional-powered vessels, helps China patch a major vulnerability: an inability until now to control the Taiwan Strait. This larger submarine fleet, even if less effective than its American counterpart, would vastly complicate any effort by Washington to intervene. Past calculations of how quickly the American aircraft carrier fleet could safely move into the area are even now being rewritten to include new estimates of the patrolling range of the new Chinese submarine fleet.

In a written statement on "Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States" submitted to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence earlier this month, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, discussed an even broader nature of the Pentagon's concern.

"In addition to key Taiwanese military and civilian facilities," Admiral Jacoby said, "Chinese missiles will be capable of targeting U.S. and allied military installations in the region to either deter outside intervention in a Taiwan crisis or attack those installations if deterrent efforts fail."

Admiral Jacoby, in unclassified testimony, predicted that by 2015, the number of Chinese nuclear warheads "capable of targeting the continental United States will increase severalfold."

For now, though, China's capabilities are not considered a threat to the United States mainland; China still lacks an oceangoing navy that could rival America's presence in the Pacific, while America has no lack of nuclear missiles that can strike China from land or from submarines.

Experts also say it is clear that China will be able to proceed with its modernization plans with or without European weapons, though its progress may be slower. China has purchased destroyers, as well as many other weapons, from Russia, its main supplier. At the same time, it is modernizing its fleet of warships, built at a rapidly growing chain of domestic shipyards that is financing its own expansion by taking an increasing share of commercial shipbuilding contracts in Asia, according to United States government assessments.