U.S. Concerns Rise over Chinese Military Growth

An Israeli negotiator visited Washington this week to resolve a dispute between Israel and the United States over arms sales to China. The Bush administration is pressuring Israel to stop selling arms and transferring technology to China amid growing U.S. concern about China's military buildup.

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Washington recently confronted the European Union over its proposal to lift its 16-year-old arms embargo against Beijing. This week an Israeli negotiator visited Washington to resolve a similar dispute between Israel and the US over arms sales to China. The Bush administration is pressuring Israel to stop selling arms and transferring technology to China amid growing US concern about China's military buildup. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

The United States has been angered by several Israeli arms deals with China in recent years. In 2003, Israel tried to sell China a plane equipped with an airborne radar system known as Falcon. The deal was canceled after loud protests by Washington. A more recent dispute involves Israel's sale of an unmanned attack drone known as the Harpy. When China sent the drones back to Israel, the US demanded that they not be returned to China. Washington suspected that Israel planned to upgrade the drones for Beijing. Israel says it was simply fulfilling a maintenance contract. Alon Ben-David covers Middle East issues for Jane's Defence Weekly. He says that Israel has scaled back its arms deals with China considerably under US pressure.

Mr. ALON BEN-DAVID (Jane's Defence Weekly): I think that would be the fatal blow to the Israeli-Chinese defense ties. I don't think that we're going to see anymore defense ties between the countries after what has happened in the last few months. I don't think Israel would risk its relations with Washington for anything.

O'HARA: The United States apparently is not so sure. The Bush administration recently suspended information-sharing with Israel on a new attack aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Pentagon officials say the US is not comfortable sharing the technology until certain issues can be resolved. The F-35 utilizes American technology, but the Harpy, the unmanned aerial vehicle that Israel sold to China, does not. Again, Alon Ben-David.

Mr. BEN-DAVID: I don't think that the issue is the transfer of American technology. The Americans are concerned of every transfer of advanced defense technology to the Chinese.

O'HARA: Indeed, two months ago, the Bush administration waged a tough fight to convince the European Union to drop plans to lift its long-standing arms embargo against China. While visiting Beijing that month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent the European Union this blunt message.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): The lifting of an arms embargo at this time might actually serve to alter the military balance in a place where the United States in particular has very strong security interests.

O'HARA: The Bush administration is very concerned about the military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. According to Beijing's official figures, China has doubled its defense spending in the last five years. In March, CIA director Porter Goss told the Senate committee that China's military modernization is a threat to US interests. David Eisenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British-American Security Information Council, is skeptical. He says China is a long way from posing a significant threat.

Mr. DAVID EISENBERG (British-American Security Information Council): While the money is spent on new systems, it's still way behind in more critical, if less-appreciated things like training, for example. Their pilots on their fighter aircraft are still getting the very sparse training, you know, on the order of maybe 50 hours in a quarter flying the aircraft, and that's pretty pathetic.

O'HARA: But Evan Medeiros, a China analyst with the Rand Corporation, says the Pentagon has reason to be concerned. Medeiros is one of the authors of a new Rand analysis of Chinese military modernization.

Mr. EVAN MEDEIROS (China Analyst): Chinese military capabilities have steadily improved, especially since the late 1990s, and they represent a qualitative shift from a decade ago.

O'HARA: Much of China's defense spending, Medeiros says, is on things such as Russian submarines, aircraft and missiles, all of which could be brought into play in any military conflict over Taiwan. The US, he says, has a vested interest in preventing China from acquiring additional military technology.

Mr. MEDEIROS: The pace at which the Chinese military is able to modernize is going to affect US force planning, and, in particular, the implications for the United States of a conflict over Taiwan. Given the US concerns about the pace and scope of Chinese military modernization, its concerns about Israeli weapons transfers to China is entirely a legitimate concern.

O'HARA: Herzl Bodinger, the Israeli negotiator on this issue, spent several days in Washington this week trying to convince the Bush administration that Israeli dealings with China are not a threat to US interests. Neither the Israeli embassy nor the Pentagon would comment on the outcome of the meetings, citing the sensitivity of the issue. But both governments say they are committed to resolving the dispute. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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