Monday, February 27, 2006

China’s communist leaders are advising the new leftist government in Bolivia to avoid upsetting the United States, but at the same time have offered to replace shoulder-fired missiles that a CIA-led operation removed from the South American country last year, U.S. intelligence officials said.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, during a recent visit to China, was told he should avoid actions that could lead to U.S. intervention and perhaps the ouster of his government, said officials familiar with intelligence reports.

The Chinese fear the United States will orchestrate a coup against Mr. Morales using sympathetic officers within the Bolivian military.

A Bush administration official said China told Mr. Morales, “You have to be nice to the United States,” and the advice is part of Beijing’s long-term strategy to undermine U.S. influence in the region and other parts of the world.

Before Mr. Morales’ election in December, the CIA led an operation that secretly took 38 Chinese-made HN-5 surface-to-air missiles. The agency was helped by Bolivian security officials concerned that the weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists linked to the new ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS), Mr. Morales’ party.

The official said a Chinese missile replacement “would be a very provocative act.”

A Bolivian Embassy official said he had no information about his government’s plan to obtain Chinese missiles. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.

The missile operation was part of a program by the CIA and other international intelligence services to limit the spread of so-called “manpads,” or man-portable air defense missiles, that terrorists could use against commercial aircraft.

The missiles were flown to the Army’s weapons facility at Aberdeen, Md., and dismantled.

The election of Mr. Morales and the consolidation of power by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and both nations’ growing military and intelligence ties to Cuba are raising new concerns. Both Bolivia and Venezuela also have increased contacts with Iran, a state sponsor of international terrorism, the officials said.

A U.S. military official said any Chinese offer would include missiles more advanced than the HN-5s, which are a Chinese version of the Russian-made SA-7 shoulder-fired missile.

If the missiles are supplied, “China will take another step toward solidifying its nascent position as an alternative to the United States for the supply of military equipment, along with any political influence that accompanies that role, a main objective for any sale,” the official said.

During his visit to China in early January, Mr. Morales met with Wang Jiarui, head of the international department of the Communist Party. The department is the party’s main liaison with foreign communist and leftist parties. He also met with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The Chinese government is rapidly increasing its influence in South America. Senior Chinese political and military officials have made numerous visits to the region in the past several years. China is seeking to obtain natural gas from Bolivia, which has large reserves.

China has signed an estimated 40 agreements with South American governments, including some that involve military training programs.

The Morales government also is developing close military and intelligence ties to the Cuban government. Mr. Morales announced in January that he has invited Cuban and Venezuelan intelligence teams to conduct security sweeps and to prevent what he called “imperialist intervention.”

Mr. Morales, a former coca farmer, announced in January that he plans to dismantle the U.S.-backed military Joint Task Force that was involved in eradicating coca plantations in an effort to prevent the use of the plant for illicit drugs.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has called the election of Mr. Morales “worrisome.”

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