By Ken Fireman and Allen T. Cheng WASHINGTON/TOKYO, Bloomberg
In 1995, the U.S. faced down China by sending two aircraft-carrier groups into the area. Since then, China has steadily increased its military edge over the Taiwanese, while gaining the ability to inflict considerable damage on any U.S. force coming to Taiwan’s aid in a crisis, say military experts.
China has targeted Taiwan with short-range missiles — as many as 790 by the end of 2005, a number that has been expanding by about 100 annually, the U.S. Defense Department says. China also has more than 700 combat aircraft based within easy reach of Taiwan, the Pentagon said last year in its annual assessment of China’s military. China has also upgraded its vessels, aircraft and anti-ship missiles. It is acquiring two destroyers and eight new diesel-powered submarines from Russia, all equipped with advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, the report said. The military buildup, which coincides with efforts to secure access to energy supplies for its expanding economy, has prompted expressions of concern from security officials across Asia, including Japan and India. Still, most Asian countries haven’t acted on these concerns, says Evan Medeiros, an analyst with the policy research group Rand Corp. in Washington. “You don’t see most East Asian states embarking on across-the-board military modernization programs in direct reaction to China,” he says.
Countries carrying out the most trade with China are among those expressing concern about Chinese military intentions. Last year, the U.S. was mainland China’s biggest trading partner, with US$262.6 billion in commerce, while Japan was second at US$207.3 billion and Taiwan fourth at US$107.8 billion, according to data from China’s Customs General Administration. Japan plans this week to sign a security accord with Australia during a visit to Tokyo by Australian Prime Minister John Howard. “Japan is working hard to build strategic ties as it competes with China’s growing influence,” said Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University in Canberra. While China is beefing up its military capabilities, Medeiros says, “what you don’t see is China buying a long-range bomber force, long-range heavy-lift capabilities, things that would indicate that it’s trying to develop global power projection.” That hasn’t stopped some top U.S. officials from ringing alarm bells. In a Feb. 23 speech in Sydney, Vice President Dick Cheney said China’s buildup and the satellite shoot-down “are not consistent with China’s stated goal of a peaceful rise.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates was more measured last week, saying he didn’t regard China “at this point as a strategic adversary” of the U.S. “It’s a partner in some respects, it’s a competitor in other respects, and so we are simply watching to see what they’re doing,” he told reporters on March 7.
Still, Gates expresses concerns about China’s lack of openness about its actions and intentions, likening it during a Feb. 23 news conference to the lack of transparency in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. China’s closed approach isn’t just creating uncertainty in other countries; it may also increase the chances for missteps among Chinese officials themselves, because their system is so compartmentalized, says Cynthia Watson, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington. “I wish I knew what Beijing was going to do 20 years from now,” she says. “I bet Beijing wishes it knew what it was going to do 20 years from now.” Fallon, 62, the U.S. Pacific commander being shifted by President George W. Bush to head the American military presence in the Middle East,, says U.S. officials should work to increase Chinese transparency through “encouragement, examples from the outside” and persistent engagement.
He invited Chinese officials to observe a U.S. military exercise in the Pacific last July in part to encourage greater Chinese openness, he says, and in part to dispel any thoughts that the U.S. may be too preoccupied with Iraq to respond to a challenge in Asia. “I wanted them to see how good we are,” he says. During the July North Korean missile crisis, Fallon says, he eventually had to deliver his message to the Chinese through the indirect channel of a U.S. military attache. The North Korean government, undeterred, fired seven missiles into the Sea of Japan. By October, when North Korea tested a nuclear device, Fallon says his communications with Beijing had improved slightly: Chinese diplomats tipped U.S. counterparts that the test was about to happen. “I had a definite warning, 10 minutes, by the time it got to me,” he says. “A lot of progress.”