US to court Chinese over missile programme

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The Independent US

President George Bush's determination to forge ahead with his proposed missile defence system could see China being granted an early view of the plan and receive a tacit undertaking that America would not object to it expanding its own arsenal of nuclear weapons.

In a continuing effort to soften Beijing's opposition to the plan, US diplomats are trying to convince the Chinese that they are not threatened by the proposed missile shield. They are also willing to accept that China may also want to resume underground nuclear testing – currently banned by a worldwide moratorium.

The changes in US policy – reported yesterday by The Washington Post and The New York Times – clearly indicate the near reverence the Bush administration attaches to the missile defence plan, to the extent that it is willing to court nations with which relations are, at best, frosty. Mr Bush is due to visit Beijing next month when he likely to be involved in further discussions on the issue.

The President's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told the newspapers that talks with China about the missile shield would begin soon. "We want to have serious talks with them about why this is not a threat to them [and] why we think stability in the Asia-Pacific region would be well served by this capability," she said.

Ms Rice added that while the US was not "about to propose to the Chinese that in exchange for Chinese acceptance of missile defence we will accept a nuclear build-up", she stopped short of saying America would oppose a build-up.

Other officials have conceded that a build-up is inevitable – largely to convince China that it had the capacity to overwhelm the shield – and that the US may as well try and take some advantage from acquiescing to it.

One senior White House official said: "We know the Chinese will enhance their nuclear capability anyway and we are not going to say to them. 'We're not going to tell you not to do it'."

Experts believe that China has about two dozen missiles aimed at the US and that this number could increase tenfold over the next 10 years. Ms Rice said while the US saw no need for Beijing to increase its arsenal, the administration was aware that "their modernisation has been under way for some time".

She added: "No one likes the fact that there is a modernisation going on. We don't think it is good for the world. But if we stopped all of our missile defence plans tomorrow you would not see the Chinese cease their military modernisation."

America's new policy and the willingness to tear up the nuclear testing agreements has angered many missile defence opponents. Senator Joseph Biden, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, said: "This is absolutely absurd. It shows that these guys will go to any length to build a national missile defence, even one they cannot define.

"Their headlong, headstrong, irrational and theological desire to build a missile defence sends the wrong message to the Chinese and the whole world."