Force of arms to keep the giant at bay: Raymond Whitaker, Asia Editor, examines the policies that led President Bush to sell fighter jets to Taiwan despite a predictable row with China

THE DISPUTE over President George Bush's decision to sell fighter aircraft to Taiwan showed no sign of dying down yesterday, with China rejecting the explanations of a special American envoy as 'unjustifiable'. France may soon be drawn into the dispute, after indications that Taiwan is close to buying 60 Mirage 2000 fighters in addition to the 150 F-16s it is obtaining from the US.

William Clark, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs, arrived in Peking yesterday on an unscheduled one- day visit for talks on the fighter deal. No American statement was forthcoming afterwards, but the official New China News Agency said: 'The Chinese side reiterated China's solemn and just stand . . . and refuted the unjustifiable explanations of the US side.'

Wan Li, chairman of China's parliament, said the sale was unacceptable, and that 'under no circumstances can China agree to it'. Using Cold War rhetoric, he accused the US of 'hegemonism'.

Although Mr Clark is unlikely to have said so to the Peking government, American concern over what it sees as Chinese 'hegemonism' is one reason for the F- 16 deal. (Another, of course, is the electoral benefit to Mr Bush of a contract that will preserve nearly 6,000 jobs in Texas.)

Gerald Segal, of the Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said Washington might sell F-16s to Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines as well as Taiwan following recent Chinese purchases of Russian weapons that are more sophisticated than any previously deployed in the region.

'It is a way for the US to signal that it is not disappearing from the region,' said Mr Segal. 'Most American allies are very happy to see these sales.'

Other countries in the region have become increasingly uneasy with their giant neighbour's aggressive prosecution of territorial claims in the waters to the south and east of China. After seizing the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in 1974, China moved into the Spratly group in 1988, fighting a brief but bloody naval engagement with Vietnam as it did so. Hanoi and Peking, which fell out over Cambodia in 1978, were reconciled last year, but almost immediately there was renewed tension over oil exploration in disputed waters.

The Spratlys are little more than a collection of atolls and reefs, the nearest of which is more than 500 miles from the Chinese mainland, but there are thought to be huge oil and gas reserves within its waters. Apart from China and Vietnam, claims are also laid by Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. Maps have appeared in China that show the whole South China Sea as its territory, and last February the claim was enshrined in law. Legal force has also been given to demands for the Senkaku Islands, north-east of Taiwan, which are disputed with Japan and Taiwan.

In a diplomatic game of Grandmother's Footsteps, China has carefully interspersed its aggressive acts with offers of international consultation and joint development of disputed areas. Until now this has kept its neighbours from uniting, but Peking's changes in military policies and rapid acquisition of hardware are beginning to sound alarm bells.

Military clearance sales by the republics of the former Soviet Union have already given China a small force of Su-27 long-range interceptors, with MiG-31s possibly about to follow. Peking is also building up its navy and may buy an aircraft carrier from Ukraine. Although this vessel could not be deployed until well after the year 2000, and difficulties remain with mid-air refuelling, China will soon be able to project power up to 1,000 miles from its shores.

A heavily armed nationalistic China poses a variety of strategic conundrums. If neighbouring countries seek to match its military purchases, there is the risk of an all-out arms race in East Asia. That in turn might bring Japan out of its defensive stance, a danger that until now has been averted by the American security guarantee to the region. By increasing the military strength of its allies, Washington may actually be making it more difficult to reduce its strategic commitments.

China's immediate response has been to threaten withdrawal from United Nations Security Council talks on curbing weapons supplies to the Middle East, posing the spectre of another arms race. The main factor likely to hold it back is its dependence on trade with the US.

'Ironically enough, Peking's fury over the F-16 sale is likely to make it easier for Mr Bush to overcome Congressional opposition to 'most favoured nation' trading status for China,' said Mr Segal. 'It helps him to show that he can be tough with the People's Republic when necessary.'