BEIJING — China greeted U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen on Tuesday by urging Washington to drop plans to build anti-missile defense systems that have united China and Russia in opposition.
"We urge the United States to drop as soon as possible this plan, which does not serve its interest and harms that of others," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi told a news conference as Cohen arrived.
China is bitterly opposed to plans to build a National Missile Defence (NMD) system to protect vulnerable parts of the United States from missile attacks and a Theatre Missile Defense system (TMD) to shelter U.S. and allied troops in Asia.
Beijing fears such an umbrella could cover Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland, and says the system would spark an arms race in Asia.
China got no comfort on TMD last weekend, when a senior U.S. arms negotiator said the United States had not ruled out sheltering Taiwan under it.
"We don't rule out the possibility that some time in the future Taiwan may have TMD capabilities," U.S. arms control adviser John Holum said after two days of talks in Beijing.
Holum spoke to reporters on Saturday after the first arms control talks in more than a year between the United States and China, during which a U.S. test of the proposed NMD system failed.
A U.S. official told reporters China sees U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, arms control and the missile defence issue as linked.
"The Chinese would like to tie Taiwan arms sales into non-proliferation discussions, NMD, TMD — all these things from the Chinese point of view tie into the discussion of proliferation and it's a contentious issue," said the official.
The timing of the much-anticipated NMD test added insult to injury for the worried Chinese.
It failed because the so-called "kill vehicle" did not separate from its booster rocket. The trial never progressed to testing whether the weapon could find a dummy warhead in space and smash it out of the sky.
Cohen told reporters on his way to China the failure did not automatically mean he would recommend against moving forward with the system.
He must make a recommendation to President Bill Clinton in four weeks on whether to go ahead with the NMD system.
"What I have to do is to await the full report, all of the analysis... So at this point I'm just going to withhold any judgment," Cohen told reporters travelling with him.
Russia and China are adamantly opposed to the system, which is aimed at shielding the United States from attacks from states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq. U.S. allies in Europe are worried it could lead to a renewed arms race.
"No matter what the United States says, it will not change China's opposition to the anti-missile defence programme," said Chinese spokesman Sun.
Asked about reports China's senior arms negotiator said NMD would force Beijing to change its policy on nuclear disarmament, Sun said: "We will determine our disarmament policy in accordance with the development of the anti-missile system."
The Guangzhou Daily quoted China's top disarmament diplomat, Sha Zukang, on Tuesday as saying the NMD meant that "China could not help but take a more cautious approach toward joining nuclear disarmament efforts."
Development of the missile defence system is being tied to a deadline of 2005, when U.S. intelligence estimates North Korea will have a missile capable of hitting U.S. soil.
China has said it fears the NMD system would upset the global strategic balance and reduce the value of its modest nuclear deterrent capability.
Cohen planned to broach the issue of missile technology proliferation with Chinese leaders, including U.S. suspicions that China is sending technology to Pakistan—an accusation both countries deny.
Holum said he failed to bridge gaps with China over alleged Chinese sales of missile technology to Pakistan.
The New York Times said last week China had stepped up shipment of special steels, guidance systems and technical expertise to Pakistan.
"Our view (is) that China is proliferating with respect to Pakistan, dealing with what we think we have evidence of," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The Chinese resist that and the rest of it is in a state of negotiation, but it is moving forward," the official said.