U.S. Notes Growing Chinese Military Strength

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The Pentagon's 2005 report on China's military is released after months of review by the State Department, CIA and White House. The final version is diplomatically worded, but the data is ominous from a U.S. view.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The increasing complexities of dealing with the emerging power of China are reflected in the Pentagon's 2005 assessment of China's military capabilities. The document was released last week, but only after months of vetting by the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and the White House. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

The Pentagon compiles an annual report on China's military modernization because Congress requires it to do so. But China views the report as being much more than that and typically reacts to the Pentagon's assessment with considerable fury. This year's report makes the point that China's military capability is expanding beyond its shores, but in the face of very serious challenges in the US-China relationship, the Pentagon and other government agencies labored over the language in the report. Dave Finkelstein is director of Asian security studies at the CNA Corporation.

Mr. DAVE FINKELSTEIN (Director of Asian Security Studies, CNA Corporation): One of the hallmarks of this particular report is that it doesn't just stay in what government people would say, the military lane in the road. It puts Chinese military modernization in a much larger context that talks about China's economic development, trade policies, foreign policies, China's domestic problems. It's very clear this required a lot of interagency coordination.

O'HARA: People who were involved in the vetting process say the National Security Council objected to language in one of the early drafts because it portrayed China as a threat. The final version avoids the word `threat' except in one instance, while welcoming what it describes as `the peaceful rise of China.' Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, worked on last year's Pentagon report. He says he's not surprised by the finely tuned diplomatic language in this report.

Mr. DAN BLUMENTHAL (American Enterprise Institute): I think that what happens when you get a lot of high-level policy people with their hands in it, you're going to get a more toned-down report.

O'HARA: Blumenthal says the administration devoted considerable attention to this report because the White House and Congress currently are very focused on US-China relations. And as Blumenthal notes, the US needs Beijing's help in convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: You have to look at the fact that the six-party talks are back on next week--over North Korea are back on next week, and obviously, people want that to be successful and not to be complicated by anything.

O'HARA: Despite the conciliatory tone of the report, the substance of the Pentagon's concerns about China comes through very clearly. Analyst James Mulvenon, with the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, says previous reports reflected the view that China's military modernization was motivated primarily by Beijing's concerns about Taiwan.

Mr. JAMES MULVENON (Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis): One of the interesting themes in this report is the message that China represents not only a threat militarily to Taiwan and potentially the United States, but that it also represents a military threat to China's neighbors. And many of the maps and other range charts in the report clearly suggest the Chinese missiles that are normally thought of as a Taiwan contingency-type weapon could also be used to coerce any number of China's neighbors.

O'HARA: Dan Blumenthal says the new report also defines a broader potential nuclear threat to the United States.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: It's the first time that it's made the point that China has expanded its capabilities in that area to the point where, you know, most American cities are vulnerable.

O'HARA: Blumenthal says that China's power has improved considerably in recent years, and this year's report he says reflects the administration's acknowledgement of that fact and uncertainties about how to deal with it. Analyst Dave Finkelstein says the United States was more comfortable dealing with the old China.

Mr. FINKELSTEIN: Now after over 20 years of so-called reform and opening up, China is re-emerging as a significant actor in international relations. And all of this is sort of coming together at the same point of time and there is tremendous uncertainty about what future China is going to emerge out of this.

O'HARA: Indeed, the report itself describes China as facing a strategic crossroad, and the report acknowledges that the United States does not know what kind of choices China's leaders will make as the country grows in power and influence. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

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