Beijing Is On An Arms Binge, And The Neighbors Are Nervous

With the Soviet Union consigned to the dustbin of history and the U.S. scaling back its forces in the Pacific, China is extending its reach. In what is shaping up as a major weapons-shopping binge, Chinese arms buyers are trawling the former Soviet Union for advanced weapons that will dramatically boost the military's ability to intervene far away from the mainland. U.S. intelligence officials say China is also signing up scores of out-of-work Russian engineers and scientists.

China's leaders see in the Soviet demise and the U.S pullout from Subic Bay and Clark air base in the Philippines a chance to play what they view as their rightful role in the world's fastest-growing region. While it is bitterly divided over economic policy, the Beijing elite generally subscribes to the centuries-old conviction that China, not the U.S. or anyone else, should call the shots in Asia. But despite Beijing's nuclear arsenal, "there has always been a gap between China's military capability and its self-image as a superpower," says Ng Ka Po, a military specialist at China News Analysis, a Hong Kong journal.

TRADE TIES. But that may be changing. Dipping into its $40 billion hard-currency reserves, China bought 24 Russian-made long-range Su-27 fighter planes last year, reversing a mutual, 30-year freeze on arms sales. There have also been widespread reports that Beijing is negotiating to buy Soviet T-72 tanks, IL-76 transport planes, an aircraft carrier, and refueling knowhow that would give its bombers a range of more than 1,000 miles.

China is also using diplomacy in its bid to take over regional leadership. It won much goodwill by brokering the Cambodian settlement last year and has normalized troubled relations with India and Indonesia. It's also trying to boost its trade ties in the area to cut its reliance on the U.S. market, which Congress might someday close to punish human-rights violations.

But the Chinese aren't being shy about displaying muscle. In a move that shocked other Asian countries, China recently signed an oil-exploration deal with Denver-based Crestone Energy Corp. in an area in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland. Although the area is also claimed by Vietnam, Crestone's owner, Randall C. Thompson, says that the Chinese promised to use "full naval force" to back up Crestone.

Beijing's strategy appears to be to intimidate its neighbors so as to win favorable settlements in its many territorial disputes with them. Already, says Australian analyst Gary Klintworth, countries such as Thailand and Vietnam "have come to terms with the fact that China will become the dominant great power" in Asia.

A senior U.S. official calls China's new pushiness "ominous" and says it is a good reason to keep up a U.S. military presence in the Pacific. China's neighbors apparently agree. The U.S. is already talking to newly elected Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos about using Subic to service ships. Singapore has granted U.S. forces expanded access to bases. And nonaligned rhetoric aside, both Malaysia and Indonesia this year have quietly negotiated agreements making their bases available to U.S. forces and may hold exercises with U.S. units. It may take more than that to keep China's dangerous moves in check.

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