Up in arms treaties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 March, 1993, 12:00am

ONCE again, China stands accused of selling weapons to unstable regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. The United States has long worried about Beijing's role in arms proliferation. Despite former President George Bush's efforts to prevent a build up, the issue has regularly been dragged into the annual debate on renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trade status.

At the same time, there are concerns that a 15 per cent increase in military spending well beyond official rates of inflation signal more than a cost of living adjustment on food and necessities for soldiers in uniform claimed by the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Not only the United States, but many Asian nations fear China is extending its reach, especially the regional influence of its navy. Vietnam in particular worries that purchases from the former Soviet Union, particularly Russia, are boosting itsability to intervene in the disputed Spratly Islands. Although Sino-Vietnamese relations are better than for many years, the memories of their 1979 border war and China's arming of Vietnam's enemies in Indochina are not easily forgotten. Beijing's links with the military in Burma and its naval facilities there are seen as a threat in South Asia too.

This time, however, the accusation is more sensitive. China is now being described as the country most to blame for the global spread of weapons of mass-destruction. Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are on China's sales list and its client statesare among those the West tends to regard as the most dangerous and irresponsible. The issue has won cross-party support in US Congressional hearings at a time when China can no longer rely on the political support of the Bush administration. President BillClinton appears ready to lend an ear both to Democrats in Congress and those in his own administration ready to hit out at China at any opportunity. Accusations that China is building up its own military muscle, fomenting trouble in the Middle East and Asia and, some suspect, aiming to fill the vacuum left in Asia by the collapse of the Soviet Union, support the view of those who hope to punish Beijing through attaching conditions on its MFN status.

Mr Clinton is not desperate to stand up for China as his predecessor might have been. His nominee for Under-Secretary of State for International Security Affairs Ms Lynn Davis believes that China shares much of the blame for weapons proliferation even though Beijing has agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The barrage of attacks on democratic development in Hongkong, culminating in Hongkong and Macau Affairs Office Director Mr Lu Ping's savaging of the Governor, Mr Chris Patten, on Wednesday will only have increased Beijing's international vulnerability.

China's positive role in attempting to pave the way for a compromise in the row over North Korea's sudden withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty may however help to raise its credit. Beijing's influence with North Korea may have diminished since its normalisation with Seoul last year, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is virtually the only nation whose voice is still listened to with any real attention in Pyongyang. Its offer to mediate and the pressure it exerted on North Korea to start talking about possible solutions in direct talks with the United States in Beijing earlier this week will have won it points in Europe as well as in Washington. Japan's Foreign Minister Mr Michio Watanabe yesterday joined in with a call on China to intervene.

Useful though China's unique relationship with Pyongyang may be, it will need to do a lot more to counter the growing international disdain it has been building up by its weapons sales policies and its bullying of Hongkong. Despite its growing military and political influence in Asia, China is still dependent on international goodwill for its continued economic growth. Though it has shown it is unwilling to thumb its nose at America, its trade sanctions against France over sales of fighter aircraft to Taiwan and yesterday's threat of trade sanctions against Britain over Hongkong could further damage China's chances of joining the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in the near future. Unless China learns to act like a responsible member of the communityof nations, Hongkong can do little to ensure it does not lose that all important MFN status into the bargain.