Region Reconsiders China's Economic, Military Might

China's growing economic and military power is causing countries in the Asia-Pacific area to reconsider their own positions in the region. Australia is a key case. It's trying to find a new balance between the region's current dominant power, the United States, and the area's re-emerging power, China.

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Let's go next to the other end of Asia where many nations are reconsidering their futures. China's growing economic and military power has its neighbors thinking. Australia, for example, wants to find a new balance between China and the region's current dominant power, the United States. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made his Chinese-language stage debut in a speech at Beijing University in April of last year.

Prime Minister KEVIN RUDD (Australia): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Heaven and earth are nothing to be afraid of, he quips. But foreigners trying to speak Chinese, now that's scary. Later in the speech, Rudd offered to be China's chong'yo(ph), a Chinese term for a friend who gives frank and principled advice even when that advice is not welcome. Rudd's speech and his experience as a young diplomat in China raised hopes in Beijing of closer ties with Canberra. But Beijing University International Relations expert Zhu Feng says Rudd's actions have not matched up to his rhetoric.

Professor ZHU FENG (International Relations, Beijing University): (Through translator) China had hoped to forge a strategic partnership with Australia, that same form of diplomatic courtship reserved for very important relationships. But Australia didn't agree to this, and this made China very angry.

KUHN: Rudd now faces several thorny disputes with China. Today, he expressed concern over the detention in China of Australian mining executive Stern Hu, who is suspected of illegally obtaining trade secrets. Hu's firm Rio Tinto recently snubbed China's bid to buy a stake in the firm, which would have been China's biggest overseas acquisition to date.

And in May, an Australian Defence White Paper cited China's growing military might as the main reason why Australia should boost defense spending and double its submarine fleet by the year 2035. Andrew Davies is a defense expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. He says that Australia faces a more complicated security environment and must prepare for more contingencies

Professor ANDREW DAVIES (Senior Researcher, Australian Strategic Policy Institute): But with the rise of other powers, particularly China, we find ourselves running the risk of being in a situation where our major trading partner, which is China, and our major military ally, which is the United States, are drawn into a strategic confrontation. And we don't necessarily want to be seen to be taking sides in that.

KUHN: Davies says America is not a declining power, but its ability to project decisive military power is waning. For an example, he points to 1995, when the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters off Taiwan as a warning to Beijing not to escalate tensions with the island.

Prof. DAVIES: Their ability to do that today is significantly less because of the heightened Chinese military capability. And by 2025 or 2030, it's very questionable whether the U.S. will have that capability at all. So it's quite a significant shift in the power balance.

KUHN: China's reemergence comes after two centuries in which Australia was protected, first by British, and then American sea power. Like other countries in the region, Australia is unsure of how China will use its growing power or how Beijing and Washington will get along. So it's hedging its strategic bets. Zhu Feng says it's emphasizing more independence from the Australia, New Zealand, U.S. Security Treaty or ANZUS, which Beijing sees is a Cold War-era effort to contain it.

Prof. FENG: (Through translator) Australia's political and strategic identity is becoming increasingly distinct. I don't think this means a weakening of its alliance with the U.S. It just means that within the alliance's framework, it's seeking a new balance between its political and economic ties with other countries.

KUHN: Adjusting to the strategic shift underway presents tough choices for both Australia and China. For Australia, how much should it rely on diplomacy to increase its security and how much of a military build-up can it afford? And for China, what are the limits of its soft-power diplomacy, and how much can it realistically hope to be accepted or at least not be perceived as a threat?

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Correction July 17, 2009

Our report said the U.S. sent two carrier battle groups into the Strait of Taiwan in 1995. In fact, that action was taken in 1996.

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