US claims China piling up missiles

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THE UNITED States has accused China of planning a massive build- up in the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan, a claim which will increase friction between Washington and Peking just two weeks before the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is to visit China.

The apparent leak of a classified Pentagon report exposes divisions within Washington over Taiwan's inclusion in its planned Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system for Asia, with American defence officials and conservatives keen to bolster their case for inclusion despite caution from diplomats on a likely backlash from China.

Peking has already warned of "a setback unprecedented since the normalisation of bilateral ties", should Taiwan be made part of the TMD system, which is backed by Japan and would also cover South Korea.

The classified report said the Chinese military has more than 150 M-9 and M-11 missiles aimed at Taiwan, according to the Financial Times. Crucially, the report quoted "military analysts" in Washington as saying the report forecast this would increase to 650 missiles in the "next several years".

However, with relations between Peking and Taipei at their best for years, it is the Sino-US "strategic partnership" which looks set for a bitter argument over missile deployments. Mrs Albright is due in Peking in March to lay the ground for the visit by Zhu Rongji, the Chinese prime minister, to the US in the spring. Sino-US ties are already shaky.