ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
In nearly every aspect of military capability — from cruise missiles to submarines, satellites to cluster bombs — China has been working hard to modernize its armed forces. That's been some cause for concern in Asia and the United States. Some see it as a natural result of China's emergence as a rising power; others see danger to the United States and its interests in Asia. Over the past week we've been featuring stories about China and its changing influence on the world.
NPR's Mike Shuster concludes the series today with a report on whether China really poses a threat.
MIKE SHUSTER: The evidence of China's military modernization is ample: double-digit increases for military spending since 1989; the rapid expansion of China's cruise and ballistic missile force and the deployment of hundreds of missiles along China's coast across from Taiwan; the rapid expansion of China's submarine force and the modernization of the missiles those submarines carry; and last year, China's destruction of one of its own satellites by a land-based missile, announcing China's unexpected capability in anti-satellite warfare.
There is no doubt that China is a rising military power, says former Defense Department official Kurt Campbell, who now heads the Center for a New American Security.
Mr. KURT CAMPBELL (Center for a New American Security): No country has risen to a status of great power as rapidly as China has, I would argue, over the last 20 years.
SHUSTER: With its rapidly expanding economy, its growing thirst for energy and its own perception of itself as an emerging power, it makes perfect sense that China should modernize its military capabilities, says Ralph Cossa, director of the Pacific Forum, a think tank in Honolulu.
Mr. RALPH COSSA (Director, The Pacific Forum): They want to have a force commensurate with their political and economic standing in the world, and we shouldn't be surprised by that. And we shouldn't necessarily be frightened by that.
SHUSTER: Still, some are frightened by that. They see China's expansion of its military as a direct challenge to the U.S. Just peruse the titles of several new books: "The Coming War with China," or "Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States" and "China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future."
Susan Shirk is not among the alarmists. Still, in her recently published "China: Fragile Superpower," Shirk writes history teaches us that rising powers are likely to provoke wars.
Ms. SUSAN SHIRK (Author, "China: Fragile Superpower"): Let's remember why they provoke war. They provoke war because of the reaction of the present-day powers, and not only because of their own behavior. And I have to say that there are reasons to be worried on both scores.
SHUSTER: Perhaps no one knows more right now about China's military, and especially its naval capabilities, than Admiral Timothy Keating. Keating is head of Pacific Command, based in Honolulu. It's his job to watch China's military and watch it closely. He's been to China several times, seen its weapons systems up close, held talks with China's military leaders.
He admits China is developing impressive military capabilities, but, he says:
Mr. TIMOTHY KEATING (Admiral, Head, Pacific Command): The Chinese are behind us. Unmistakably, they know it. In their words — I'm quoting some of them — they're 25 years behind us.
SHUSTER: One of the reasons that some analysts in the U.S. are so concerned about China's military development is that it is, in part, hidden. Chinese leaders have not explained why they shot down their own satellite last year, why a Chinese submarine last year shadowed the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, or why they talk about acquiring aircraft carriers of their own.
China needs to be more transparent about its military, and Keating says, little by little they are.
Mr. KEATING: Increased transparency can yield to greater trust. That reduces the potential for misunderstanding. Misunderstanding can lead to conflict or crisis.
SHUSTER: No area is more fraught with potential conflict for China and the U.S. than Taiwan, which China regards as part of its territory. The recent presidential election in Taiwan, won by a candidate who wants to improve relations with the mainland, may go a long way to cooling potential conflict there.
But, says Susan Shirk, China's military modernization has been all about Taiwan and denying the U.S. military access to Taiwan and the area around it in case conflict breaks out.
Ms. SHIRK: They want us to really think twice about confronting China's military power in such a contingency.
SHUSTER: China does have the capacity to threaten the actual homeland of the United States. It possesses 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles that carry nuclear warheads and could reach the U.S. But these missiles are not on high alert, and the warheads are stored separately from the missiles.
Although China is modernizing these missiles, it believes its nuclear arsenal is a minimal deterrent, and in recent years it has not modified that doctrine.
Kurt Campbell believes that with the attention of the U.S. focused primarily on the Middle East, recent administrations have not paid enough attention to what is going on with China's military.
Mr. CAMPBELL: It's not, I think, any outward and, you know, specific steps that China has taken that are cause for immediate American concern. But it is a pattern of very substantial steps that have led to a rather sharp increase in Chinese power.
SHUSTER: China's recent unrestrained crackdown in Tibet adds another element to an understanding of China's military. The People's Liberation Army is used not only against foreign threats but also against internal challenges as China's civilian communist leadership sees them.
In order to maintain the PLA's loyalty to the civilian leadership, Susan Shirk believes, the military demands and gets its way on military spending. That is not a strength of the Chinese system in Shirk's view.
Ms. SHIRK: I see it more as a reflection of China's internal weakness, and that they need to satisfy the military in order to keep the Communist Party in power.
SHUSTER: That's why Shirk calls China a fragile superpower. The current events in Tibet are the most recent evidence of just that.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.