BEIJING — China has about 300 missiles that can strike Taiwan and appears to be adding about 50 more each year — a buildup that if continued might prompt Washington to boost Taiwan's defenses with high-tech weapons, the commander of U.S. Pacific forces said Thursday.
Just weeks before Washington decides on what weapons to sell Taiwan this year, Admiral Dennis C. Blair said Chinese missile deployments could largely determine whether Washington one day sells Taiwan anti-missile systems that Beijing opposes.
"There will be a point at which that missile buildup will threaten the sufficient defense of Taiwan and which it is the United States' policy to maintain," Blair said at a briefing Thursday, two days into a six-day visit to China.
"It's important that the Chinese make the connection between what they deploy on their side of the strait and the types of technologies that the United States might make available to Taiwan to provide for its sufficient defense," he said.
U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, a frequent source of friction in China-U.S. ties, are the issue perhaps most likely to disrupt Beijing's efforts to build relations with President Bush.
For China, the Taiwan issue is sacred. The sides split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing regards Taiwan as part of its territory to be brought back into the mainland's fold, peacefully if possible.
But U.S. law obliges Washington, a Cold War ally of Taiwan's, to ensure that the island democracy has sufficient weapons to defend itself. Beijing fears that a Taiwan equipped with high-tech armaments could resist pressure for reunification and fight off any attempt to take it by force.
Meanwhile, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji made a surprise announcement Thursday that Bush will visit Beijing in October.
Bush had been expected to travel to Shanghai in October to attend a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders, and Zhu said Bush would also visit China's capital.
But in Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer indicated that a final decision has yet to be made on whether to go to Beijing for a state visit.
Blair, making his third visit in two years as commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, is the most senior American officer to visit since Bush's January inauguration.
Meeting with Blair on Wednesday, the Chinese army's chief of general staff, Fu Quanyou, urged the Bush administration "to stop arms sales to Taiwan immediately so as to avoid damaging Sino-U.S. relations," the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Washington is expected to decide by next month whether to approve Taiwan's weapons requests for this year, including four destroyers equipped with the state-of-the-art Aegis battle system that defends ships against aircraft and missile attacks.
China fears Aegis could form part of a more comprehensive shield to defend Taiwan against missile attack and has specifically warned Washington not to sell it.
Blair said Aegis, as it exists now, does not defend against ballistic missiles. But he acknowledged that Aegis will be a platform for anti-missile systems under development.
China has expressed vehement opposition to providing technology for a theater missile defense to Taiwan. It also says that a proposed National Missile Defense system to protect the United States from attack by rogue states will start a new arms race and undermine China's nuclear deterrent.
Missile defense is expected to be discussed when China's senior leader for foreign policy, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, visits the United States next week.
The Foreign Ministry's arms control director said Wednesday that China wants talks to "narrow our differences" with Washington over the system.
Blair suggested that China's objections were based on an oversimplified understanding of the technologies involved.
He said that on previous visits he provided Chinese officials with detailed explanations of the various U.S. anti-missile systems under development, but "did not get much of sense that they were drawing distinctions."
"Anything that had (missile defense) in it was considered bad and anything that didn't was considered good. It was a fairly simplistic notion," he said. "So I welcome any more sophisticated discussions of these kinds of systems."