US-Chinese rift underlined by missile dispute: Anger over Pakistan connection fuels hostility between the two powers, writes Raymond Whitaker

Relations between China and the US deteriorated further yesterday as Peking threatened to stop abiding by international controls on missile exports. Washington is likely to see this as an empty gesture, since it believes the Chinese have never paid more than lip-service to the rules in any case.

This belief was behind the American imposition of an embargo on hi-tech exports to China and Pakistan on Thursday. In the case of China it was a reinstatement of sanctions imposed after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 and lifted early last year in exchange for Peking's promise to abide by, though not to sign, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). This agreement bans the sale of missiles with a range of more than 186 miles, but Washington claims it has clear proof that China has sold Pakistan several M-11 missiles, which have a range of more than 300 miles. Peking denies having violated the MTCR, while avoiding discussion of its specific dealings with Pakistan; Islamabad admits it bought missiles from China, but says their range is less than 186 miles.

'Now that the US side has resumed these sanctions, the Chinese government has been left with no alternatives but to reconsider its commitment to the MTCR,' the Vice-Foreign Minister, Liu Huaqiu, told the US ambassador, J Stapleton Roy, yesterday. 'This naked hegemonic act has brutally violated the basic norms governing international relations.'

The question of Chinese adherence or non-adherence to the MTCR is the most acute of a string of issues which have led to growing hostility between the two powers. Among others are motions in Congress opposing the awarding of the 2000 Olympic Games to Peking, Chinese resistance to American pressure on human rights and sales of Chinese weaponry and nuclear technology to maverick states in the Middle East and South Asia. The latest row is about the cargo of the Yinhe, a vessel the Americans claim is carrying materials to Iran for its chemical weapons programme. The Chinese have complained that the shadowing of the Yinhe by US warships and aircraft constitutes unacceptable bullying.

The general atmosphere of friction owes much to changing political and economic circumstances - the disappearance of the Soviet threat and China's economic boom, which has led to a huge trade surplus with the US - but the intensity of the quarrel over missiles disguises the fact both sides are being careful not to damage more vital interests. The US sanctions are more symbolic than effective, and the Chinese response, despite the strength of the language, is carefully non-specific.

The Clinton administration's desire to appear tough on this issue partly reflects a growing belief in Washington that it is better to put pressure on China in pursuit of limited and achievable goals, rather than use the unwieldy weapon of trade to demand human rights concessions which Peking would consider fatal. The fact that this strategy increasingly resembles the much- criticised approach of George Bush is one that American officials prefer not to discuss.

Chinese anger might be useful to President Clinton, but is no less genuine for all that. Peking's international stance wavers between growing self-confidence, born of its economic achievements, and resentful awareness of its dependence on the US as an export market. Its sales of weapons and nuclear technology to maverick states such as Iran appears partly to reflect a desire to assert itself. The US, on the other hand, seems to feel that if it is too difficult to make Peking behave acceptably at home, it should be possible to force it to do so abroad. The gulf in understanding reflects the degree to which trust has ebbed away.

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