French consulate is victim of jet row

CHINA yesterday carried out its threat that France would 'eat bitter fruit' for selling Mirage fighters to Taiwan, but Western diplomats said an order to close the French consulate in the booming southern city of Canton was at the lower end of the scale of possible retaliation, writes Raymond Whitaker.

The French ambassador, Claude Martin, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told the pounds 2.6bn sale of 60 Mirage 2000-5 fighters and 1,500 air-to-air missiles had 'seriously worsened bilateral relations'. 'Under these circumstances, the Chinese side is of the view that the unilateral maintenance of the French consulate general in Canton is no longer appropriate,' the Vice-Foreign Minister, Jiang Enzhu, was quoted as saying. He told France to close its consulate within a month. The French government said it regretted the decision, but still refused to confirm the Mirage sale.

'By insisting on the sale of fighter aircraft to Taiwan in disregard of the strong objection of the Chinese side, the French government has seriously infringed upon China's sovereignty and security, interfered in China's internal affairs and jeopardised China's efforts to achieve peaceful reunification,' Mr Jiang said. 'This is absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese side.'

China has been angered this year by a succession of military deals with Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, but until yesterday it had avoided direct retribution. An earlier French sale of frigates was offset by a promise of economic aid to Peking - a pounds 78m loan agreement was signed on Tuesday - and no serious action has so far been taken against the US, which has sold Taiwan 150 F-16 fighters.

China's scope for retaliation is curbed by its dependence on exports, particularly to the US, where it enjoys a dollars 20bn (pounds 13bn) trade surplus, to fuel its expanding economy. After hinting at the time of the F-16s deal that it might cancel grain purchases, it recently bought wheat as well as six Boeing airliners and a switching system from AT & T. France has recently missed out on a number of deals, but China has held back from ordering out the French ambassador, as it did in the case of the Netherlands after Taiwan bought two Dutch submarines.

One Western diplomat commented that Peking appeared to be confining its action to the commercial front. With Sino-British relations at their worst for more than a decade over Hong Kong, and uncertainty over the intentions of Bill Clinton, the US president-elect, China could not afford confrontation with a third Western power.

'What this latest episode shows is that relations with leading Western countries are still not completely normal after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989,' he said. 'France is quite prepared to defy China.'

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