Chill descends on US-China relations

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 12/06/07):

Even as the US struggles to stop relations with Russia plunging into deep freeze, a distinct chill has descended over its dealings with Beijing following a new Pentagon report on China's military build-up. Richard Nixon knew better than to antagonise both superpower rivals at once. No such wisdom troubles George Bush.

Noting China's "rapid rise as a regional political and economic power with global aspirations", the Pentagon complained of uncertainty surrounding its expanding military might and how it may be used. Beijing's short-term focus was "military contingencies in the Taiwan Strait", it said. But it was also planning to project military power further afield in the Asia-Pacific region, in preparation for possible conflicts over resources or territory.

The Pentagon took particular exception to the Chinese navy's development of a new fleet of five Jin-class ballistic missile submarines with enhanced, long-range nuclear weapons capabilities; the successful test in January of a direct-ascent, anti-satellite weapon that "put at risk the assets of all space-faring nations and posed dangers to human space flight"; and China's growing ability to counter US battlefield, space and cyberspace technologies in support of so-called "area denial" strategies.

Challenging the communist party leadership's "peaceful rise" slogan, the US defence planners claimed "China's actions in certain areas appear inconsistent with its declaratory policies and defence expenditures remain far above officially disclosed figures". And they highlighted two problems.

While tensions with Japan had eased somewhat after last November's Beijing summit, "territorial disputes in the East China Sea and China's efforts to block Japan's quest for a seat on the UN security council remain sources of friction". The report also warned that Taiwan, which Beijing deems a renegade territory but whose de facto independence is implicitly underwritten by the US, remained the most likely flashpoint.

"China's military modernisation and the deployment of advanced capabilities opposite the island have not eased, with the balance of forces continuing to shift in the mainland's favour," it said. While Taiwan was also increasing its defence spending, presidential elections due in Taipei next March could further exacerbate bilateral strains. Taiwanese officials recently denied they were planning to acquire medium-range missiles or weapons of mass destruction but internal political divisions continue over how best to deter China.

China's response to the Pentagon's critique has been robust and subtle. The foreign ministry deplored "brutal interference" in China's internal affairs. The official People's Daily suggested the report was a blatant attempt by US hawks to disrupt US-China relations. "By ignoring the facts and deliberately playing up the so-called China military threat, the report absolutely does not have a leg to stand on," the paper said.

Speaking at an International Institute for Strategic Studies conference in Singapore, Lt-General Zhang Qinsheng, deputy chief of the Chinese general staff, said US fears were exaggerated. "China is different from the rising powers in history as it has chosen the path of peaceful development ... China all along adheres to a defence policy that is defensive in nature. China shall never fire the first shot," he said. Gen Zhang insisted China's defence budget figures were "true and authentic". Given "the multiple security threats we face", he said overall expenditure was "fairly small" in comparison with the US.

Western and Taiwanese analysts say China's emerging Taiwan strategy is to deter US military intervention in a future conflict by keeping US aircraft carrier groups at bay, far out in the western Pacific, principally through the use of missile submarines — the policy of "area denial". But China also has concerns about US capabilities, they say, including Washington's overwhelming nuclear superiority — roughly 10,000 warheads to China's 400.

As a global trading power with growing international interests and vulnerable Middle East oil supply routes, China's growing projection of military power, is hardly seen as exceptional. Rather, it follows an established western tradition. Mr Bush's plans for global missile defence, a source of friction with Russia, have meanwhile further complicated the east Asian military equation.

Joint US-Japan cooperation on missile defence, ostensibly to deter North Korea, has left Beijing wondering, like Moscow, whether for all its emphasis on transparency, the Bush administration is telling the whole story.