Revving Up the China Threat
Ever since taking office, the Bush Administration has struggled to define its stance on the most critical long-term strategic issue facing the United States: whether to view China as a future military adversary, and plan accordingly, or to see it as a rival player in the global capitalist system. Representatives of both perspectives are nestled in top Administration circles, and there have been periodic swings of the pendulum toward one side or the other. But after a four-year period in which neither outlook appeared dominant, the pendulum has now swung conspicuously toward the anti-Chinese, prepare-for-war position. Three events signal this altered stance.
The first, on February 19, was the adoption of an official declaration calling for enhanced security ties between the United States and Japan. Known officially as the "Joint Statement of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee," the declaration was announced at a meeting of top Japanese and US officials, including Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Rice. The very fact that US and Japanese officials were discussing improved security links at this time was deeply troubling to the Chinese, given their painful exposure to Japanese militarism during World War II and their ongoing anxiety about US plans to construct an anti-Chinese alliance in Asia. But what most angered Beijing was the declaration's call for linked US-Japanese efforts to "encourage the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue." While sounding relatively innocuous to American ears, this announcement was viewed in Beijing as highly provocative, representing illicit interference by Washington and Tokyo in China's internal affairs. The official New China News Agency described the joint declaration as "unprecedented" and quoted a senior foreign ministry official as saying that China "resolutely opposes the United States and Japan in issuing any bilateral document concerning China's Taiwan, which meddles in the internal affairs of China and hurts China's sovereignty."
The second key event was a speech Rumsfeld gave June 4 at a strategy conference in Singapore. After reviewing current security issues in Asia, especially the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea, Rumsfeld turned his attention to China. The Chinese can play a constructive role in addressing these issues, he observed. "A candid discussion of China...cannot neglect to mention areas of concern to the region." In particular, he suggested that China "appears to be expanding its missile forces, allowing them to reach targets in many areas of the world," and is otherwise "improving its ability to project power" in the region. Then, with consummate disingenuousness, he stated, "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?"
To Beijing, these comments must have been astonishing. No one threatens China? What about the US planes and warships that constantly hover off the Chinese coast, and the nuclear-armed US missiles aimed at China? What about the delivery over the past ten years of ever more potent US weapons to Taiwan? But disingenuousness aside, Rumsfeld's comments exhibited a greater degree of belligerence toward China than had been expressed in any official US statements since 9/11, and were widely portrayed as such in the American and Asian press.
The third notable event was the release, in July, of the Pentagon's report on Chinese combat capabilities, The Military Power of the People's Republic of China. According to press reports, publication of this unclassified document was delayed for several weeks in order to remove or soften some of the more pointedly anti-Chinese comments, to avoid further provoking China before George W. Bush's November visit there. In many ways the published version is judicious in tone, stressing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of China's military establishment. Nevertheless, the main thrust of the report is that China is expanding its capacity to fight wars beyond its own territory and that this effort constitutes a dangerous challenge to global order. "The pace and scope of China's military build-up are, already, such as to put regional military balances at risk," the report states. "Current trends in China's military modernization could provide China with a force capable of prosecuting a range of military operations in Asia--well beyond Taiwan--potentially posing a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region."
This annual report, mandated by Congress in 2000, is intended as a comprehensive analysis, not a policy document. However, the policy implications of the 2005 report are self-evident: If China is acquiring a greater capacity to threaten "modern militaries operating in the region"--presumably including those of the United States and Japan--then urgent action is needed to offset Chinese military initiatives. For this very reason the document triggered a firestorm of criticism in China. "This report ignores fact in order to do everything it can to disseminate the 'China threat theory,'" a senior foreign ministry official told the American ambassador at a hastily arranged meeting. "It crudely interferes in China's internal affairs and is a provocation against China's relations with other countries."
While much of this was going on, the American public and mass media were preoccupied with another source of tension between the United States and China: the attempted purchase of the California-based Unocal Corporation by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). This attempt received far greater attention in the media than did the events described above, yet it will have a far less significant impact on US-Chinese relations than will the Pentagon's shift to a more belligerent, anti-Chinese stance--one that greatly increases the likelihood of a debilitating and dangerous military competition between the United States and China.