Growing Chinese Military Strength Stirs Debate

America's relationship with China is drawing renewed attention from the Bush administration. China is a growing economic power and is well along with a military modernization effort. What are China's ultimate intentions?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This week we're taking a special look at America's relationship with China. It's probably the most complex and most important relationship between two nations today. Our future and our children's futures could be affected by the way these two countries get along. And this week, China is drawing renewed attention from the Bush administration. The US Treasury secretary is visiting China right now, along with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. They're discussing trade and currency issues. And this week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is going to China to talk about military matters. As they travel, NPR's Mike Shuster reports on why China has some Americans concerned.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

What worries expert and policy-makers most is China's military modernization. Kurt Campbell was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Asia policy a decade ago, overseeing studies on China's military then.

Mr KURT CAMPBELL (Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense): If you look back on those studies, and it's only been a decade, China has exceeded, in every area, military modernization that even the far-off estimates of the mid-1990s predicted.

SHUSTER: With huge purchases of military hardware from Russia and great strides in its own indigenous arms industry, China's military is expanding in size, strength and sophistication, leading some experts, such as John Tkacik of The Heritage Foundation, to question the assertion of leaders in Beijing that they intend China's rise to be peaceful.

Mr. JOHN TKACIK (The Heritage Foundation): When Chinese come to the United States and say, `We want a peaceful rise. We don't want to upset the status quo. We are a status quo power. You don't have to worry about us,' they're not telling the truth.

SHUSTER: China's military expansion has led some to see another Soviet Union on the horizon, a growing threat that needs to be contained, just as US policy contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But in a recent major policy speech Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick declared that is not an accurate comparison.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. ROBERT ZOELLICK (Deputy Secretary of State): For 50 years, our policy was to fence in the Soviet Union while its own internal contradictions undermined it. For 30 years, our policy has been to draw out the People's Republic of China, and as result, the China of today is simply not the Soviet Union of the late 1940s.

SHUSTER: Agreeing on what the China of today is, though, is not so easy. Most China experts believe that China is modernizing its military with a primary goal in mind--eventual unification with Taiwan, which it has always viewed as part of China. China has deployed some 700 missiles along the Taiwan Straits capable of reaching Taiwan, and from time to time, China has threatened to use military force to bring Taiwan to heel, a policy the United States has opposed for decades.

Randall Schriver, deputy assistant secretary of State until earlier this year, believes China's military modernization is first about Taiwan and only secondarily about confronting US military power if a conflict over Taiwan breaks out.

Mr. RANDALL SCHRIVER (Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State): I think that has served as the focal point for China's military modernization efforts for over a decade. I think this has allowed China to get pretty good very quickly because it's allowed them to focus the various elements of the defense community on a single mission and that's how militaries tend to get good quickly.

SHUSTER: But others see a more expansionist China. John Tkacik of The Heritage Foundation believes it is China's ambition to replace the United States as the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Mr. TKACIK: China is looking at Taiwan as simply a steppingstone to demonstrate its military prowess, to demonstrate to the rest of east Asia that when it wants something, it gets it.

SHUSTER: It should come as no surprise, then, that the Bush administration is divided on China. The Pentagon sees more of the threat, the State Department is more inclined to pursue engagement and diplomatic cooperation. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick warned in his speech last month that China must become more open so that there will be less confusion and ambiguity about its intentions.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. ZOELLICK: China needs to recognize how its actions will be perceived by others. China's actions, combined with a lack of transparency, can create risks. Uncertainties about how China will use its power will leave the United States, and others as well, to hedge relations with China. Many countries hope China will pursue a peaceful rise, but none will bet their future on it.

SHUSTER: These very divisions in the US prompt China, too, to hedge its bets. According to Kenneth Lieberthal, a White House China expert during the Clinton administration.

Mr. KENNETH LIEBERTHAL (Former Clinton Administration Official): The Chinese, as they look at the Bush administration, I think believe accurately that the president wants a good relationship with China, that the State Department feels a good relationship can be achieved with China and that the Pentagon disagrees with all of that and is preparing for the worst. And, of course, what we do to hedge is seen by the Chinese as threatening.

SHUSTER: This is a crucial moment for US-China relations, most analysts agree. Few foresaw that China's rise in military terms as well as in the economic sphere would be as rapid and as successful as it's been. If US policy for 30 years has been to draw China into the global community, China was always seen as a junior player until now. That presents policy-makers, no matter what political party they are from, with an entirely new challenge.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Our series continues tomorrow, when we'll report on rising tensions with China over trade and currency.

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