Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Bush administration blocked the sale of an advanced radar system to China and might purchase at least one of the stealth aircraft-detecting systems to offset the loss, U.S. and European officials said.

China had sought to buy several high-technology Vera radar from a Czech Republic manufacturer in the past five months, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“This is not something we wanted the Chinese to have,” said one Bush administration official who opposed the sale.

At the Pentagon, a defense official would not comment directly on the radar sale, but said: “Any system that would enhance [China’s] ability to alter the balance of power in the region is inherently destabilizing.”

A European diplomat said the United States several weeks ago pressed the Prague government, a new NATO ally, to block the sale after the government there issued an export license to the export company Omnipol.

“They said this was not a good thing to do because of some U.S. strategic interest in that part of the world,” the diplomat said of the Bush administration appeals.

Vera is a second-generation, passive radar-detection system that American officials think has some capability to detect U.S. radar-evading stealth aircraft, a key U.S. military advantage.

The radar is manufactured by a firm called ERA, based in Pardubice.

An earlier version of the radar, known as Tamara, was sought by Iraqi arms buyers in 1997 and by Iran in 1999.

In Prague, Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told the CTK news agency on Thursday that the radar sale to China was canceled because it was not in the country’s interest. A Chinese Embassy spokesman had no immediate comment on the canceled sale.

The Pentagon opposed the sale because of concerns that the radar could be used against U.S. aircraft if a conflict erupted across the Taiwan Strait. The United States has said it would back the Republic of China (Taiwan) in a conflict with China if Beijing’s communist government sought to use force to annex the island, which split from the mainland in 1949.

The European diplomat said the U.S. and Czech governments are discussing the sale of at least one Vera radar to the United States.

“And if there is a market, possibly more,” the diplomat said. “It will either go to the United States or to a NATO country. But it is not going to China.”

The talks involve discussions between Pentagon officials and the Czech arms company Thomas CZ.

The proposed sale highlights China’s effort to use European weapons and arms technology to build up its military forces. In recent years, China has purchased Russian-made warplanes, submarines and warships. Beijing also has acquired dual-use commercial items that it is using for its military buildup, U.S. officials said.

The behind-the-scenes effort to block the radar sale also indicates that the United States, despite its current focus on terrorism, regards China as a future strategic rival.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld traveled to Asia in November and said he is reviewing U.S. force deployments there. Mr. Rumsfeld has said that China’s future is uncertain and that it could develop as either a friendly or hostile power.

Last month, the European Union temporarily held off lifting its embargo on arms sales to China. The sanctions were imposed after China’s 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests.

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