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NATO Plans Expansion Despite Russian and Chinese Protests

Prague, April 26 (RFE/RL) - As China joined Russia yesterday in expressing opposition to NATO's eastward expansion, the alliance's military leaders were meeting in Brussels with Eastern European officers in a move intended to strengthen mutual ties.

"Expansion in the post-Cold War era would not serve the interests of all and is not consistent with the trend of the times," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang at a press conference in Beijing. He went on to say that "President Jiang Zemin expressed understanding and support for Russia's stand on the issue of NATO."

Shen Guofang was commenting on Jiang Zemin's talks with visiting Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The two leaders launched a "strategic partnership for the 21st century" between their countries.

Meanwhile, meeting in Brussels this week, Western armed forces chiefs were briefing their East European colleagues on forthcoming military maneuvers. The briefing came under the aegis of the Partnership for Peace program, and was said to have "reflected the spirit of new transparency" designed to ease the path toward cooperation and eventual full membership.

There appears to be no longer any doubt NATO will expand in the east. "The inclusion of new members is now fully inscribed on NATO's agenda and preparations are on course," a high-ranking NATO official was quoted as having told an international conference held last week in Rome.

A report on these preparations is to be presented to NATO foreign ministers at their annual meeting in December. Invitations to join may be extended to some of the candidates early next year. Then, a long process of negotiations will begin.

There is still no official timetable for the expansion, and none is expected for some time. Neither has there been any clear indication who would be invited to join.

NATO Secretary General Javier Solana has been traveling through Central and Eastern Europe during recent days, but he has been careful to avoid naming the leading candidates for entry.

Analysts say Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic may be currently leading the field for early entry. That much could have been gleaned from unofficial hints by important Western politicians. British Prime Minister John Major said in Prague last week, for example, that the Czech Republic and its immediate neighbors are prime candidates for NATO membership.

Hungary's ambassador to NATO said this week in Brussels that he felt "confident" that Hungary will gain membership. He also said that he expected "new members to be around the council table by 1999."

It is already known that the process will be gradual, with different time of entry assigned to different countries. Indeed, the most important issue for the alliance's planners now is how to deal with those countries left out of the early round of acceptances, and what strategies to adopt to assure them that their turn will eventually come as well.

What about the Russians, then? and the Chinese? "The Russians have to come to terms with what is going to happen," a high-ranking diplomat told a Reuter news agency reporter recently. As to China, it has previously maintained that the issue of NATO's expansion was only of concern to the parties involved.

The sudden change of Beijing's stance on NATO might suggest merely an attempt to show a momentary expression of togetherness with Yeltsin, who faces a tough battle for re-election at home, rather than a permanent shift in political strategy.

There has been no sign that the Sino-Russian "strategic partnership" could or would affect Western plans for the future developments in Central Europe.