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China's fear of being next target

Armed forces push for more funds to boost defenses in wake of NATO hit

Nato's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia and its accidental targeting of Beijing's embassy in Belgrade are triggering calls by the Chinese Army for increased defense funding.

Last Friday's attack, which killed three Chinese journalists and wounded 20 diplomatic personnel, "is reinforcing China's sense of vulnerability in the face of overwhelming US and NATO military might," says a senior Chinese official.

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Fear mixed with rage animated four days of often violent protests outside US diplomatic outposts across China. During virtually every Chinese newscast this week, waves of Chinese troops are shown angrily punching the sky as they denounce the Belgrade bombing.

The state-controlled media here are still calling the bombing a premeditated attack, after delaying for three days publishing President Clinton's explanation of the incident as a tragic mistake and his apologies for the loss of life.

On Monday the Chinese leadership said that it was suspending high-level military contacts with the US and participation in international talks on weapons proliferation.

The embassy bombing, says a Western military analyst who asked not to be identified, "is throwing fuel on the fire of Chinese fears of NATO's expansion and its new military doctrine of intervening in a sovereign state on human rights grounds."

Ethnic conflicts

A young Beijing University lecturer says that the strategy of NATO deploying its forces to prevent ethnic conflicts has China's political and military leaders worried. "China has its own problems with ethnic minorities in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, along with an independence movement in Taiwan, and we wouldn't want to see a NATO-supported civil war cause the breakup of the country," he says.

Yet both the Chinese lecturer and the Western military analyst say that, rather than aiming for eventual parity with the world's sole superpower, China hopes instead to increase its ability to defend its own borders.

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This spring, the military was granted a 12 percent budget increase. But that followed an order by the Communist Party for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to divest itself of its money-generating business interests, making it difficult to calculate the net effect on the Army's finances.

Earlier this week, the official China Daily said that PLA and Communist Party leaders "are determined to strengthen national defense and to modernize the Chinese Army."

NATO's sophistication, in comparison with China's largely low-tech Army, makes many Chinese suspect the accidental nature of the embassy bombing and fear that Beijing could one day become an easy target.

"The US has the world's best technology, best weapons, and best Army," says the university lecturer. "How could it possibly have made such a huge and stupid error?"

The embassy "bombing will give the Chinese military greater leverage in pushing for more defense acquisitions," says the Western analyst. "China's political and military leaders are now drafting the [country's] 10th five-year economic plan, and this is an opportune time to press for funding increases."

But defense experts both here and in the US say Beijing is likely to limit any increase in the military budget in order to protect China's economic modernization drive. "China's top priority is still economic development," says Michael Swaine, an expert on the Chinese military at the Rand think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. "It doesn't want to derail that goal."

US defense superiority

Mr. Swaine says that, even if allegations of China's theft of American nuclear weapons designs are proven true, Washington still enjoys a vast defense superiority over Beijing, and adds that "in many areas, the gap is growing."

Most experts estimate that China's nuclear arsenal consists of 300 to 400 atomic weapons (compared with 6,000-plus for the US), and about 18 intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the US.

"The asymmetry is so enormous that even significant improvements in the Chinese military would not create a fundamental challenge to US security," Swaine says.

One strategy Beijing hopes to use to narrow the defense gap with the US is "stepped-up purchases of high-tech weapons from Russia," says the Western analyst. During a trip to China this week by Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's special envoy on the Balkans crisis, Beijing and Moscow "are likely to have sharpened their consensus on NATO's ability to encroach on the two countries' interests," he adds.

Yet China's budget constraints and Russia's wariness about overarming its giant southern neighbor are both likely to limit increased military cooperation.

Swaine says some US "congressmen are taking a very alarmist view of China's military intentions ... in the direction that could lead to a new cold war." Yet most American leaders "don't believe China is going to become the Soviet Union of the 21st century."

Many experts agree that China's military development program is mainly aimed at maintaining a deterrent to what it perceives as the dangers of a NATO-dominated world. "I don't think you can talk about the possibility of China becoming a global superpower over any time frame," says Swaine.

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