Washington Post



Friday, February 26, 1999 ; Page A20


China is engaged in an intense buildup of ballistic and cruise missile forces that will give it an "overwhelming advantage" over Taiwan by 2005, the Pentagon reported to Congress yesterday.

Concentrated in eastern and southern China, these missiles "pose a serious threat to non-hardened military targets, [command and control] nodes and Taiwan's military infrastructure," according to the Pentagon assessment.

These were among key findings in an assessment of the military balance in the Taiwan Strait area ordered by Congress. The report was due at the beginning of February but was held up until yesterday by arguments between the Pentagon and the State Department about what it should say, according to several sources.

The report does not say China intends to attack Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province, but notes that Beijing's leaders have never renounced the option of using force if Taiwan were to declare itself independent. U.S. policy holds that there is only one China, and calls for peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, but at the same time the United States has sold combat jets and other weapons to the Taiwanese, to China's anger.

The report seems certain to be a new irritant to U.S.-China relations and complicate the agenda for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's visit to Beijing next week. Relations with China are due to take another hit today with the release of the annual State Department assessment of human rights conditions around the world, which always criticizes China.

Chinese human rights activists such as Wei Jingsheng and Harry Wu are scheduled to participate in a Washington news conference aimed at highlighting China's repression of political dissent, and a House subcommittee has scheduled a hearing today for the same purpose.

According to Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), a classified version of the Pentagon military assessment "examines the feasibility" of developing anti-missile defenses to protect Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. China is opposed to any effort to develop anti-missile capability in the region, especially on Taiwan, which according to Beijing is not an independent country and should not be contemplating military resistance to Beijing.

"I encourage all senators to read this troubling report," Murkowski said in a statement. "The findings about the growing ballistic missile threat have implications far beyond the Pacific Rim."

Nothing in the Pentagon report suggests that either China or Taiwan is about to do anything to provoke a confrontation. On the contrary, it notes that "nearly three years after the People's Republic of China conducted provocative military exercises opposite Taiwan on the eve of that island's first popular election" -- an act that prompted President Clinton to send a U.S. aircraft carrier to the strait -- "the security situation in the Taiwan Strait remains calm, with no threat of imminent hostilities."

The assessment also says Taiwan has and will have a more modern air force and better-equipped navy. But it adds that the sheer numbers of troops, surface ships, submarines and aircraft in China's armed forces would enable China to blockade Taiwan and "over time to achieve air superiority."

Carl Ford, a former Defense Department official now acting as a consultant to Taiwan, called the report "amazingly straightforward, given the pressures in the administration to avoid provoking the People's Republic of China any more than they need to."

Ford said China is not seeking to recover Taiwan by force, but does want to make sure that its military power is sufficiently appreciated to intimidate Taiwan. The Pentagon report has that effect, it said, because it concludes that China could overwhelm Taiwan if it were willing to "take the casualties and withstand the international condemnation" that such action would bring.

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) agreed, saying that China's "refusal to renounce force against Taiwan continues a pattern of intimidation, undermining security in the region."