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U.S. concerned by China's military buildup, Rice says

NEW DELHI—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Tuesday that the United States would respond to China's growing military power by reinforcing its own military strength and strengthening its alliances with South Korea and Japan.

The Bush administration is watching China's rapid military growth with concern because of tension over Taiwan, Rice said at the start of a trip to Northeast and South Asia. She quickly added, however, that the United States doesn't "have any desire to have the alliances or our posture be a posture against China" and believes that "China can emerge as a constructive force in Asia."

Overall, Rice said, relations with China and the other countries she's visiting—India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Korea and Japan—are the best they've ever been.

"There's no doubt China is a major factor, perhaps the major factor, in the changing face of Asia, and it's a good thing that the United States has a constructive relation with China," she said on her plane en route to New Delhi.

While Rice warned China not to overplay its hand in the Taiwan Strait, she also said she'd be asking the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea how to get North Korea back to six-nation negotiations on ending its nuclear weapons programs. The talks involve North Korea, the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

"What the North Koreans would like is to get into a bilateral discussion with the United States so that one-by-one they can cut separate deals on this issue. And we're not going to allow them to do it," Rice said.

Her remarks on Taiwan and North Korea suggested that it won't be easy for the Bush administration to restrain China's military buildup and its saber-rattling on Taiwan at the same time it's seeking Chinese support on North Korea, trade and other issues.

China's rapid economic growth for years has funded double-digit annual increases in military spending, and Rice's comments came a day after China's rubber-stamp Parliament passed an anti-secession law aimed at Taiwan.

"Certainly military spending is concerning because it is taking place at a time when the cross-strait issue is still not resolved and the United States has certain commitments to a peaceful resolution," Rice said. She was referring to the narrow Taiwan Strait between China and the independently governed island of Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory.

Rice said the anti-secession law, which threatens vague "nonpeaceful" actions if Taiwan pushes for formal sovereignty, was "not helpful" in reducing tensions. U.S. policy has long been to encourage a peaceful resolution of the island's status and to urge both sides not to take any steps that would lead to war.

Rice said she hoped that Europe now would drop a plan to end its arms embargo on China. "It's a time when Asia is in transition, when the military balance needs to be maintained," she said. In addition, she noted, China hasn't resolved the human rights concerns from its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1989, the original reason for the embargo.

Rice will meet this week with the leaders of India and Pakistan, rivals for the past half-century who now are armed with nuclear weapons.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, announced in December that he wouldn't surrender his post as army chief, as he'd been expected to do, and the army remains deeply involved in all aspects of daily life. President Bush has called for democracy worldwide but has refrained from criticizing Pakistan because it's provided support for the war on terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Musharraf told the BBC on Tuesday that Pakistani officials thought they'd cornered Osama bin Laden 10 months ago but had since lost his trail.

Bush "said that democracy would be central in our dialogue with every country in the world, and it will be," Rice said. "We fully expect President Musharraf to be committed to a democratic path for Pakistan."

Despite Musharraf's drive against extremists, al-Qaida and Taliban supporters remain in hiding in Pakistan, and some extremist groups reportedly have revived under other names.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they became independent from Britain in 1947, but recently have been trying to defuse tension over Kashmir, a former princely state that both countries claim.

"Our ability to have good relations with India and good relations with Pakistan, I think, has helped also the two states to have good relations with each other," Rice said.

Rice planned to discuss expanding U.S. security arrangements with India and Pakistan, but wasn't expected to make any announcements about major weapons sales, according to a senior State Department official, who asked not to be named. Pakistan has asked to buy F-16 fighter jets, and India reportedly is looking to buy U.S. weapons, including P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and PAC-3 anti-missile systems.

Rice also planned to make her first visit to Afghanistan. "It's very exciting to see what's happened there," she said.

Her talks there will include curbing Afghanistan's cultivation of opium poppies, now nearing harvest. Afghanistan is the source of 80 percent of the world's heroin, which flows out largely through Pakistan. The cultivation of opium, the raw material for the drug, has spread this year to all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050315 RICE China

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