Wed, Feb 09, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Beijing buying its way around the arms embargo

REDUCING RELIANCE Embargo or no embargo, China is getting what it requires from Russia and elsewhere, while European governments are clamoring for a piece of the pie


If Europe decides to lift a nearly 16-year-old arms embargo on China, the change could make little difference in Beijing's multibillion-dollar weapons buildup.

Blocked from buying US and European arms, Beijing has stocked its arsenal with Russian weapons, spending heavily on fighter jets, submarines and other high-tech armaments to extend the reach of its huge but antiquated forces.

Flush with cash from its economic boom, Beijing is also investing in developing its own cruise missiles and other weapons in hopes of reducing reliance even on such friendly suppliers.

That doesn't leave much on Beijing's wish list, said Robert Karniol, the Asia-Pacific editor for Jane's Defense Weekly.

"The Chinese have been getting, largely from the Russians, pretty well everything that they're interested in," Karniol said.

A continued European embargo has sparked trans-Atlantic acrimony with Washington since British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said last month that it probably would end within six months.

Both the US and the EU banned weapons sales to China in 1989 after its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. But Washington and others who argue against letting them resume also cite possible threats to Asian regional security and Taiwan.

The dispute was expected to be an issue when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited London last week, but she and Straw said they didn't discuss it.

US Representative Tom Lantos of California accused European leaders of greed and indifference to the safety of US troops.

The accusation reflects a potentially volatile political element of arms sales to Beijing: In a war over Taiwan, they could be used against US forces.

A key goal of China's weapons modernization is to back up threats to invade Taiwan. Until recently, Taiwan was considered safe beyond the reach of Chinese guns. Its air force, equipped with US-made fighters, was thought capable of stopping a Chinese attack.

But China's weapons purchases make clear its determination to erase that advantage.

Its acquisitions from Russia alone would equip an air force and navy for a mid-size country -- scores of supersonic Su-27 fighters, Sovremenny destroyers, submarines and anti-ship missiles.

China spent more than US$13 billion on Russian weapons in the decade ending in 2003, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Britain, Germany, France and other European governments are eager for a piece of that business. But they could be disappointed.

China's Foreign Ministry said last month that even if the embargo is lifted, Beijing had no plans for major purchases of European weapons.

"Lifting the embargo will certainly not lead to massive imports of weapons, because China adheres to a defensive principle in national defense," ministry spokesman Kong Quan (孔泉) said.

Instead, Beijing is likely to turn to Europe only for small sales of sophisticated equipment that China can't make and Russia doesn't sell, Karniol said.

"The Chinese would look to the Europeans not for fighter airplanes but for components that fit on fighters, such as radars, missiles or engines," he said.

Some European governments have already made small military sales to China, according to SIPRI.

Britain and France sold naval radar systems, the group says in its 2004 yearbook. As late as 2002, France delivered missiles and Italy a radar system -- both ordered before the ban was imposed.

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