Pentagon sees China as greatest potential rival

By Peter Spiegel in London and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

Financial Times

Published: February 4 2006

China has the “greatest potential to compete militarily” with America in the future, but the US is also increasingly worried about Russian arms sales, the Pentagon said in major review of military priorities.

Underscoring mounting concerns about the rise of China, the highly anticipated quadrennial defence review [QDR] focusses on the potential future threat from a Chinese military build-up that “already puts regional military balances at risk”.

The report says Russia is “unlikely to pose a military threat to the US or its allies on the same scale or intensity as the Soviet Union during the Cold War”. But the Pentagon warns on Russian sales of “disruptive weapons” and actions that “compromise the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of other states”.

A senior defence official told the FT that the Pentagon was concerned about the “apparent drift towards authoritarianism” in Russia.

Defeating terror networks and preventing the spread of unconventional weapons remain top military priorities. But the QDR also states that “shaping the choices of countries at strategic crossroads” – including China, Russia and India - is just as important to US security. It devotes by far the most detailed discussion to China, saying it is the power most likely to “field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional US military advantages”.

Although the Pentagon made similar warnings in its annual report on the Chinese military last year, the prominent mention in the QDR - essentially a statement to Congress of how it will structure the US military to meet international threats - underscores the Bush administration view that China represents its biggest long-term conventional military rival.

The report is careful to state that US policy remains focused on encouraging China to work with other Asian countries as partners to develop regional security structures and deal with common threats, such as terrorism, proliferation and piracy.

“US policy seeks to encourage China to choose a path of peaceful economic growth and political liberalisation, rather than military threat and intimidation,” the review states.

“The United States’ goal is for China to continue as an economic partner and emerge as a responsible stakeholder and force for good in the world.” At the same time, it highlights a decade of rapidly increasing Chinese defence spending, and criticises the secrecy of Beijing’s military planning, saying the outside world remains in the dark over Chinese motivations and capabilities, particularly with regard to Taiwan.

Chinese military modernisation has accelerated since the mid-to-late 1990s in response to central leadership demands to develop military options against Taiwan scenarios,” it states.

The report says China’s increased military capability, and the size of the country coupled with the geography of Asia, means the US will have to develop weapons systems and force postures that “place a premium on [US] forces capable of sustained operations at great distances into denied areas”. This is military-speak for ships and aircraft that can stealthily observe, and if necessary attack, after operating in hostile territory for long periods.

Such weapons, which include unmanned fighter planes, space-based spy satellites, and stealthy warships that can operate in shallow waters, are all given priority among the conventional weapons supported by the QDR.