U.S. Eyes Russia-China Military Sales

BEIJING, China - The United States is closely eyeing Russian sales to China of advanced military hardware but does not believe they yet upset the balance across the Taiwan Strait, a senior U.S. diplomat said Tuesday.

Russia has sold China about 50 Sukhoi-27 fighters and several dozen advanced Sukhoi-30 warplanes.

It has been lobbying hard to sell its Beriev A-50 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance planes that would erode Taiwan's dominance of the skies over the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan's airforce has U.S.-supplied AWACS planes.

"We are watching very carefully," the diplomat told reporters.

But he added: "I don't think it's affected the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait yet."

Russia has been touting its AWACS planes since Washington blocked the sale to China of an Israeli version of the surveillance aircraft in July.

The danger is that Russian sales of advanced weaponry to China will prompt Taipei to seek yet more sophisticated hardware from the United States, leading to a more rapid arms build-up and increasing the risk of military confrontation between China and the United States.

The United States is committed to defending Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a rebel province to be reunified with the mainland by force if necessary.

"The AWACS has got our attention," the diplomat said. But he played down the threat from the Sukhoi planes, noting that China had bought relatively few of them.

NO GREAT BONDING

Russia and China talk loudly about a "strategic partnership" and have joined forces to oppose U.S. plans for a missile defence shield. But deep mutual suspicions and antagonisms suggest the relationship is unlikely to develop to a point where it might threaten U.S. global power.

"From our vantage point we don't see a tremendous bonding and upsetting of balance," the U.S. diplomat said.

But in the long term, he said "it's something we have to watch closely and from a military sense see how it might impact what we might do".

"Russia is in bad need of cash and China wants more modern weapons systems," he said.

It is not clear whether China has taken delivery of the Sukhoi-30 fighters, which would challenge Taiwan's U.S.-made F16s and French-made Mirage-2000-5s.

But the diplomat said Chinese pilots were being trained in Russia to fly the aircraft.

The diplomat hailed an agreement with China reached last month under which Beijing pledged to control exports of missiles and missile parts that may help other states develop the means to deliver nuclear weapons.

As a result of that agreement Washington said it was waiving sanctions against China for past missile technology transfers to Iran and Pakistan.

The diplomat said China had pledged to develop a formal export control system and make it public, although it had not given a timetable.

"We hope to see it sooner rather than later," he said.

He suggested China was first trying to "get a grip" on exports not sanctioned by central government.