In advance of its first direct contact with President Bush, the Chinese government Wednesday reiterated in sharp language its warning to the U.S. not to pursue plans for a national missile defense shield.
Sha Zukang, China's top arms control negotiator, said such plans would touch off an arms race and upset the delicate global strategic balance that took years to achieve.
"The development of NMD is tantamount to drinking poison to quench thirst," Sha told reporters. "It will undercut the very foundation of the international nonproliferation regime and even stimulate further proliferation of missiles."
China's growing concerns over how the missile shield would affect East Asia's security picture were mirrored Wednesday by North Korea, which stepped up its own rhetoric, arguing that the U.S. cannot justify building the system "under the absurd pretext of a 'threat' " from North Korea.
In contrast with previous Chinese denunciations of U.S. missile defense plans, however, Sha held out the possibility of discussions between the two sides.
"We are ready to have dialogue with the Americans," he said. "We have a lot of common interests with the United States. We want to be their friend."
The first opportunity for high-level bilateral talks is due next week, when Vice Premier Qian Qichen, China's top foreign policy official, travels to Washington to meet with Bush.
The missile defense shield, as well as a regional variant called theater missile defense, will be close to the top of the agenda. The systems, which in theory would destroy intercontinental missiles before they reached the U.S., have also drawn criticism from Russia and some U.S. allies in Europe as potentially destabilizing to arms control accords.
Also high on the agenda of next week's talks with Qian will be the perennial sore point of Washington's arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory that will someday be regained--by force if necessary.
Although the Bush administration has not tipped its hand as to which arms it will sell to Taiwan this year--a decision is expected in coming weeks--lawmakers such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) are pressing the administration to increase the U.S. commitment to defending the island. Specifically, they want to offer Taiwan the Aegis battle management system, which can track more than 100 targets simultaneously.
Sha said Aegis would be "the worst" possible weapons system the U.S. could provide Taiwan and a significant escalation of the island's military capability.
"Taiwan is a part of China. This is none of your business," he said, his voice rising.
China fears that Taiwan might eventually be included in any plans for deploying a missile shield, a system still in its infancy in terms of research and development. The new U.S. administration has pledged to press on with developing the technology, which many scientists say is not even clearly feasible.
The White House maintains that theater and national missile defense systems are important to ward off rogue attacks on the U.S. and its allies from unpredictable countries such as North Korea and Iran.
North Korea canceled Cabinet-level talks Tuesday with South Korea at the last minute and issued a barrage of anti-American and anti-South Korean propaganda, signaling its intent to counter the White House's recent tough statements toward the North with a harder line of its own.
"These are all calculated tactical moves by North Korea," said Lee Chung Min, professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "They want to show the Bush administration and [South Korean] President Kim Dae Jung's government they can't be pushed around lightly."
In a bid to prepare its citizens for the changes afoot, North Korea reportedly conducted civil air raid drills six times in three days this week. It also has threatened to resume missile testing.
But analysts said there's a limit to how far the isolated regime can afford to go given the dire condition of its economy, and they said a missile launch is unlikely. In effect, it wants to jolt the U.S. without getting Washington angry.
Analysts say North Korea's defensive stance is driven in part by White House statements suggesting that the Communist regime cannot be trusted to honor current and future agreements.
Chu reported from Beijing and Magnier from Tokyo.