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China Demands United States Drop Missile Defense System

By John Pomfret

China greeted the arrival of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen Tuesday with a strong reiteration of its demand that the United States drop plans for a missile defense system, warning that it will link its own weapons proliferation policy to U.S. decisions about the missile program.

Cohen came to China for two days of talks on national missile defense, along with plans for smaller-scale theater missile defenses, and to further stress U.S. concerns about Beijing’s weapons proliferation record, particularly as regards Chinese help for Pakistan’s missile program.

A Western source in Beijing said Chinese officials have expressed exasperation at the justification for the proposed missile defense system put forward in previous discussions with U.S. officials.

The Clinton administration has said it is considering the system as a way to defend the country from attack by hostile states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. But China, and Russia as well, strongly oppose the American plans because of concerns that it will give the United States a way to dilute the threat from their own nuclear missiles. This concern is particularly keen in China, which has only a small number of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“The Chinese think that argument is spurious,” the source said. “They want something more textured and they want real assurances that it’s not directed at them.”

As Cohen arrived, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi underlined the Chinese doubts, telling reporters: “We urge the United States to drop as soon as possible this plan, which does not serve its interest and harms that of others.”

In a separate set of talks seeking to halt North Korean missile exports, a U.S. official expressed skepticism that an accord can be reached in the current round of negotiations, which is underway in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Asian diplomats have noted that North Korea, another strident opponent of U.S. plans to build a shield against incoming missiles, has also said it will link a decision to curb its missile exports to U.S. decisions on the planned missile defense system.

The difficulties apparent Tuesday in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur underscored the complex security situation facing the United States in Asia as it ponders how to protect itself from missile attacks while also pushing for other countries to forgo weapons exports. China and North Korea have effectively told Washington that if it proceeds with a national missile defense system -- or a more limited theater missile defense system for U.S. troops in Asia -- they would be hard-pressed to cooperate on the U.S. concerns over weapons exports.

“We will determine our disarmament policy in accordance with the development of the anti-missile system,” Sun said.