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China rhetoric raises threat concerns
Recent statements by Chinese military officials are raising concerns among U.S. analysts that the communist government in Beijing is shifting its oft-stated "peaceful rise" policy toward an aggressive, anti-U.S. posture.
The most recent sign appeared with the publication of a government-approved book by Senior Col. Liu Mingfu that urges China to "sprint" toward becoming the world's most powerful state.
"Although this book is one of many by a senior colonel, it certainly challenges the thesis of many U.S. China-watchers that the People's Liberation Army's rapid military growth is not designed to challenge the United States as a global power or the U.S. military," said Larry M. Wortzel, a China affairs specialist who until recently was co-chairman of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
A Reuters report on Col. Liu's book, "The China Dream," appeared Tuesday in the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily. It quoted the book as stating China and the United States are in "competition to be the leading country, a conflict over who rises and falls to dominate the world."
Mr. Wortzel said the statements in the book contradict those of former President Jiang Zemin and other Chinese leaders who said China's rise to prominence in the 21st century would be peaceful. They also carry political weight because the book was published by the Chinese military.
The book was released after calls by other Chinese military officials to punish the United States for policies toward Taiwan, U.S. criticism of China's lack of Internet freedom and U.S. support for the exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama.
One official, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, called for using economic warfare against the U.S. over arms sales to Taiwan and urged selling off some of China's $750 billion in holdings of U.S. debt securities.
China's military also recently cut off military exchanges with the Pentagon after the announcement of a $6.4 billion sale of helicopters and missiles to Taiwan.
Asked about Col. Liu's book, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said it would be wrong for China to view itself as a U.S. competitor. For the 21st century, U.S.-China relations are the most important ties in the world and "it is a mistake to see the relationship in zero-sum terms," Mr. Crowley said.
Some U.S. officials in the past dismissed similar alarming statements from the Chinese military as not reflecting official views.
However, Chinese leaders have not disavowed Gen. Luo's remarks or those of others, such as Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, who in 2005 said China would use nuclear weapons against the United States in response to any firing of conventionally armed long-range cruise missiles against Chinese cities. The statement contradicted Beijing's declared policy of not using nuclear weapons first in a conflict.
Gen. Zhu reportedly was criticized and demoted but surfaced in print Feb. 10, calling for increased defense spending and boosting military deployments in response to the Taiwan arms sale.
China on Thursday announced that it would increase defense spending this year by 7.5 percent, a smaller increase than in previous years, in an apparent effort to limit criticism of its double-digit annual spending increases for more than a decade.
The recent military statements also counter insistence by many U.S. officials that China's strategic intentions toward the United States are masked by the lack of "transparency" in the communist system.
U.S. intelligence analysts, in analyses and estimates, also have dismissed or played down evidence of Chinese military deception to hide its true goals. They instead have said in classified reports that the use of strategic deception to hide China's military buildup is similar to masking efforts of Western powers.
Critics of those analysts' "benign China" outlook say such views resulted in missing major strategic and military developments by China for more than a decade, such as new missiles, submarines and other advanced military hardware, some that were built in complete secrecy.
The recent Chinese military statements have renewed the long-running debate in U.S. policy and intelligence circles about China's long-term military intentions and whether they pose threats to U.S. interests.
Mr. Crowley said the U.S. is a global power and "will remain so for the indefinite future," while China is a rising global power moving to gradually integrate into the global system.
Both countries "have a shared responsibility to cooperate where we can to solve critical international challenges, and manage areas where our national interests may collide," he said.
Michael Pillsbury, a Pentagon policy official in the Reagan administration, said Chinese military authors have reignited a "nasty debate" in Washington on China.
Mr. Pillsbury, author of two books on Chinese military views of the future, said some U.S. China hands tried to trivialize the nationalistic views because senior Chinese officials do not make such statements at official meetings with U.S. counterparts.
"China's foreign minister once told the U.S. secretary of state that China has no intention of ever pushing the U.S. out of Asia," he said. Yet, "the Chinese military itself seems to function with considerable autonomy and no real civilian oversight, so it is plausible that these Chinese military hawks are not mere mavericks or fringe elements at all. Rather, their publications may be indicators of future Chinese programs that are veiled today," he said.
For example, reports of China's development of a high-tech ballistic-missile design to attack aircraft carriers first surfaced 15 years ago but were dismissed by many analysts as implausible. U.S. naval intelligence sources, however, expect China to conduct a flight test soon of the new missile that increases the threat to U.S. warships in the western Pacific.
Adm. Robert Willard, the new commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, added fuel to the debate last fall by highlighting intelligence shortfalls on Beijing's arms buildup. He told reporters that for more than a decade China "exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability."
Earlier this year, Adm. Willard questioned Chinese assertions about a peaceful rise, saying they are "difficult to reconcile with new military capabilities that appear designed to challenge U.S. freedom of action in the region and, if necessary, enforce China's influence over its neighbors." He told the House Armed Services Committee Jan. 13 that the Chinese military buildup was "aggressive."
For years, senior U.S. civilian and military officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have stated in public that they do not consider China a "threat" or an "enemy."
Yet military statements like those of Col. Liu are making it difficult to continue those claims.
"I don't think anyone who reads Col. Liu's work can honestly deny that it reflects a consensus mindset in the Chinese military and political leadership," said John Tkacik, a former State Department China hand.
"There's no question that Col. Liu and other very influential and like-minded strategists ... are psychologically preparing the People's Liberation Army for confrontation with the United States."
Richard Fisher, a China military analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said Col. Liu's book has helped the debate by "piercing the Beijing-Washington propaganda continuum of China's 'benign intent.'"
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong did not address the Chinese military statements but said Chinese leaders have said repeatedly that China seeks peaceful development. "China pursues a national defense policy of [a] defensive nature, will not engage ... in any arms race, and will never seek hegemony," he said.
About the Author
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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