China's Military Threat In Focus After Naval Incident The Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power may attract more attention than usual after a recent confrontation between a U.S. Navy vessel and five Chinese ships in the South China Sea. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair calls the incident the "most serious" military dispute between the two countries since 2001.
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China's Military Threat In Focus After Naval Incident

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China's Military Threat In Focus After Naval Incident

China's Military Threat In Focus After Naval Incident

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. In this part of the program, we'll hear how China is encouraging its people to buy more in its sagging economy by subsidizing some purchases. China's also spending more on its military. And that's got some U.S. officials worried.

China's military's on the rise, so much so that it's shifting the military balance in the region and beyond - that according to the Pentagon's annual snapshot of China's military strength. This year, that comes just weeks after a naval confrontation with the U.S. in the South China Sea. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has more.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: When five Chinese ships surrounded the USNS Impeccable this month in the waters of Hainan Island, U.S. officials looked on with alarm. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair called it the most serious military dispute between the two countries since 2001. Admiral Timothy Keating, the U.S. Pacific commander, called it a sign, quote, "that the relationship certainly isn't where we want it to be."

Admiral TIMOTHY KEATING (Pacific Commander, U.S. Navy): China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive, troublesome manner, and they're not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior or rules of the road.

KELLY: The new Pentagon report is required by Congress. It was in the works well before the Impeccable incident and never actually mentions it. But it does point to other developments. On Taiwan, the report says China continues to produce weapons that could threaten the island, including building up short-range missiles opposite Taiwan - this despite the conclusion that the overall security situation in the Taiwan Straits has improved in the last year.

The report also notes China is expanding its nuclear, space and cyber warfare capabilities. And it concludes that China is trying to project its military muscle increasingly farther afield.

But Nina Hachigian, an Asian expert at the Center for American Progress, says Americans should take a deep breath before getting too worked up about a sinister Sino rival.

Ms. NINA HACHIGIAN (Center for American Progress): They've had, for example, no combat experience whatsoever since 1979, you know. Even if you take the very highest estimate of what China might be spending on its military, it's still -I think it's less than a quarter of ours.

KELLY: So the message there would be that China is still many, many years away from challenging U.S. military preeminence?

Ms. HACHIGIAN: Absolutely. No, it would be decades away before they can challenge the U.S. directly in any way.

KELLY: The Pentagon report also notes some positive consequences of China's military might - disaster relief, for example. It took just 10 hours for China to shift 20,000 troops and armed police to Sichuan Province last year after the devastating earthquake.

Overseas, Chinese ships have joined the international coalition fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Admiral Keating says it can be hard to reconcile the helpful cooperation on Somalia with what he calls China's illegal, irresponsible behavior in the South China Sea.

Adm. KEATING: So it's conflicting to us. And it is confusing. And this goes to the root issue of what are really their intentions? What is their strategic intent?

KELLY: China's behavior may be confusing, but it shouldn't be surprising, says Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations. He says China has good reason to keep the U.S. in the dark about its ultimate plans.

Mr. ADAM SEGAL (Council of Foreign Relations): For the Chinese, they see themselves as the weaker power. And they believe that for weaker powers a kind of certain degree of opaqueness makes a great deal of sense strategically. Right? You don't want the larger power to know what you do or don't have or what you are or are not capable of.

KELLY: The Pentagon report concludes that much uncertainty surrounds China's future, particularly regarding how it will choose to use its military power. U.S. Intelligence Chief Dennis Blair puts it this way: The debate is still on as to whether, as Chinese military power increases, quote, "it will be used for good or for pushing people around."

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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