Los Angeles Times
June 4, 2005
SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today that the rapid development of China's missile capabilities, air force and navy put Asia's military balance at risk and that the Pentagon believed Beijing's buildup had been far more extensive than its leaders had admitted.
In his most blunt assessment to date of the global implications of China's efforts to build a state-of-the-art arsenal, Rumsfeld warned that the expansion threatened not only the delicate balance between China and Taiwan, but the overall strategic equilibrium in a region increasingly vital to U.S. interests.
Speaking to Asian defense ministers at an annual security conference, the Defense chief revealed details about an upcoming Pentagon report on China, which has the world's third-largest military budget and the largest in Asia.
"China appears to be expanding its missile forces, allowing them to reach targets in many areas of the world, not just the Pacific region, while also expanding its missile capabilities here in the region," Rumsfeld said. "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment?"
Rumsfeld's remarks appear to have been an opening salvo in what could become a high-level public debate about the threat a modern Chinese military poses to the global balance of power.
Indeed, he drew an immediate response from Cui Tiankai, director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Asia bureau, the top Chinese official at the conference.
"Do you truly believe that China is under no threat whatsoever from any part of the world?" Cui asked. "And do you truly believe that the United States feels threatened by the so-called emergence of China?"
Rumsfeld replied that he knew of no nation that menaced China and that the United States did not feel threatened by China's growing power.
At the same time, Rumsfeld said, the rising level of Chinese military activities in the region — especially those aimed at Taiwan — is undeniable.
"One has to ask, Why this significant increase of ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan?" Rumsfeld said.
With a network of bases throughout the Pacific, the United States has long enjoyed military supremacy in the region. Yet U.S. officials worry that China's spending spree could challenge this, eventually giving Beijing the upper hand not only in its decades-long conflict with Taiwan, but in its relations with other Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea, India and Pakistan.China was once considered a lesser power with little strategic reach in the Pacific. But the military progress of the world's most populous country has concerned the Bush administration, especially hawkish Pentagon officials.
They are especially worried that China's navy and advanced missiles could one day deter the Pentagon from defending Taiwan, as the U.S. has long promised to do, should war break out in the Taiwan Strait.
Besides having the largest nuclear arsenal in Asia and a stable of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, China also has the world's largest army, with about 2.5 million troops.
In previous U.S. assessments of Chinese military strength — which the Pentagon must produce annually for Congress — the Defense Department focused largely on the threat to Taiwan. This year's report is expected to have a broader focus, examining the impact of the Chinese defense buildup on the entire Pacific region.
Some experts attending the conference today said Rumsfeld's statements would probably be interpreted throughout Asia as a new, more combative, U.S. stance toward China.
"I think the real concern that you're going to see coming out of this conference is that somehow the United States and China are heading into a period where they will be at loggerheads," said Kurt Campbell of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was in charge of Asia policy at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration.
"I'm not sure that the battlefield has been prepared in Asia for such a message," Campbell added.
Chinese analysts and government officials have stressed that China has no intention of threatening its neighbors or disturbing regional stability as part of its "peaceful development" strategy. Its mission, they say, is to develop a credible deterrent so Taiwan doesn't declare independence.
Furthermore, Chinese analysts have argued, Beijing's increased defense spending is in line with the country's economic growth; its budget is a fraction of Washington's; and the spending is needed to modernize a force that is well behind in technology, hardware and logistics.
China's military has not helped its own case with its secrecy, which Jing-dong Yuan, research director at the Monterey Institute of International Studies says may be as much about hiding its weaknesses as its strengths. The People's Liberation Army has no Internet site or listed telephone number despite its massive size. And taking pictures near a base can land you in jail or worse.
Rumsfeld did not offer specific numbers on the size of China's military budget during his speech, and Pentagon officials would not provide further details about the report, which they said would be given to Congress within weeks.
The dossier on China's military is long overdue, leading to speculation that the delay has been caused by infighting within the administration over whether to tone down the hawkish language.
Although it is unclear why Rumsfeld has chosen to toughen his rhetoric now, Pentagon officials traveling with him deny that there has been tension within the administration. They said the report had been approved by both the State Department and the National Security Council.
China's ascent as a military power was a focus for Rumsfeld and his team when they came to the Pentagon in 2001. Tensions between the two nations escalated that April, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese military jet off China's coast, forcing the U.S. plane to make an emergency landing on Chinese soil.
But the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the Sept. 11 attacks by Al Qaeda diverted the Pentagon's attention to the Middle East and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, relegating concerns about the future of the Chinese military to the back burner.
Last month, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented a classified report to Congress that said the current strains on U.S. forces had put the military at "significant risk" of being unable to prevail against enemies abroad in the manner that Pentagon war plans mandate.
But with China's advancing military development and tensions escalating over North Korea's effort to produce nuclear weapons, the issue of Asian security appears to have moved toward the top of the administration's agenda.
For years, Pentagon officials have been studying the advances China has made in such weaponry as cruise missiles capable of penetrating the electronic defenses of American ships and submarines, armed with nuclear missiles able to hit U.S. targets.
American officials believe Beijing has taken these steps in part to force Washington to think twice about defending Taiwan in the event of a military crisis.
China and Taiwan split in 1949 after a civil war, but China continues to view the nearby island as a rightful part of its territory and has vowed to use force if the Taiwanese declare independence.
Some Pentagon officials worry that China can now strike Taiwan with such speed and precision that the island would be under its control before U.S. forces could arrive on the scene.
"These [Chinese weapons] systems will present significant challenges in the event of a U.S. naval force response to a Taiwan crisis," Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress in March.
In Singapore, Rumsfeld spoke of China as a nation at a crossroads, where political freedom must accompany economic freedom if it is to avoid isolation by the international community.
"Though China's economic growth has kept pace with its military spending, it is to be noted that a growth in political freedom has not followed suit," Rumsfeld said at the defense conference.
He also singled out China as the only nation that could push North Korea to the bargaining table and jump-start stalled negotiations over that country's fledgling nuclear arms program. In recent months, the administration has increased pressure on China to use whatever influence it has with Pyongyang.
The administration has also taken steps to further isolate North Korea amid concerns that Pyongyang may attempt to test a nuclear weapon.
Last month, the Pentagon halted missions inside North Korea to recover the remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War. The program was the only direct contact between the two countries' militaries.
It was also a source of hard currency for North Korea's army, which was being paid millions of dollars to aid the search.
Pentagon officials said that prudence dictated the program's suspension, since they could no longer guarantee the safety of the U.S. teams working inside North Korea.
International aid officials are also worried that the United States might not make its annual contribution to the United Nations food drive for North Korea. The U.S. has been one of the largest food suppliers to the impoverished nation, providing 50,000 tons last year.
The Pentagon also recently dispatched F-117A Nighthawk stealth jets to South Korea from their base in New Mexico. The Pentagon called it a "routine deployment" to participate in an annual exercise, although Pyongyang denounced the move as another example of Washington's saber-rattling.
Rumsfeld's visit to Singapore is his first stop on a weeklong trip to Asia and Europe. From Singapore, he will travel to Thailand and Norway before wrapping up his tour in Brussels at the annual gathering of NATO defense ministers.
Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this report.