HONG KONG -- While Europe's embargo on arms sales to China seems set to remain in place, Western defense specialists warn that Beijing will score a military victory when Chinese companies begin research next month on the European Union's Galileo satellite navigation system.
In March, the Chinese government selected four state-owned companies to oversee research and development as part of China's participation in the $4.1 billion Galileo network, which is due to enter service in 2008.
The first development projects between the European Union and China are under negotiation, and contracts are expected to be signed by early May, said Hans Peter Marchlewski, a spokesman for the Galileo Joint Undertaking, the body set up to manage the development phase of the system.
Galileo is a network of 30 satellites and ground stations designed to provide a highly accurate navigation and positioning system. The system has both civilian and military applications.
Analysts who study the People's Liberation Army say that the skill China would gain from participating in the system's development would allow it to close an information gap that now gives the United States the advantage in the precise targeting of missiles and smart weapons. The system would also allow Chinese military leaders to greatly improve their command and control of forces in the field.
China's acquisition of the Galileo system is seen by these analysts as a major setback to US efforts to limit China's access to advanced military technology. Critics of China's participation in the Galileo project say that the EU is, in effect, assisting China's military modernization.
In their latest defense white paper, published in 2004, Chinese military planners make it clear that the use of advanced information technology is a top priority in efforts to modernize the army.
''Access to secure navigation satellite signals is absolutely essential to the [People's Liberation Army] realizing its vision," said Rick Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, based in Washington. ''With secure access to Galileo, the EU is playing a critical role in helping the PLA fight its future wars."
Missiles are at the forefront of the Chinese military's strategy for gaining the upper hand over Taiwan, a democratically governed island that Beijing regards as a renegade province.
Defense Minister Lee Jye of Taiwan said in Parliament on March 9 that mainland China had 700 missiles aimed at the island.
Modern antiship and antiaircraft missiles are also weapons the Chinese military planners hope would deter any US intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, according to military analysts. The United States and its allies use the network of Pentagon-developed Navstar global positioning system, or GPS, satellites to navigate with a high degree of accuracy almost anywhere on the earth's surface and to guide weapons to their targets over long distances.
Richard North, a military analyst with a London-based anti-EU research institution, the Bruges Group, said China's participation in Galileo subverted the arms embargo. ''You are handing a gift to the Chinese, which makes them a very formidable enemy," he said.
EU members failed last Friday to agree on lifting the Union's 15-year ban on arms sales to China, which was imposed after the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. France and Germany have taken the lead in pushing for an end to the ban, despite strong opposition from the United States and Japan.