- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

With the war on terror and ongoing problems in Iraq, it’s been easy to lose sight of Communist China. But the People’s Republic has been busy since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein nearly two years ago. Last year, the PRC boosted defense spending by about 11 percent. In recent months, it has been quietly ratcheting up an aggressive posture toward Taiwan. Few in the United States notice because our attention is diverted elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the problem isn’t there. Nor does it reduce the likelihood of conflict in the Straits of Taiwan.

The most recent illustration of the new Chinese bellicosity was last week’s announcement that they will “crush” Taiwan if the latter formally declares independence from the mainland. As The Washington Times reported, China’s annual defense review “National Defense in 2004” warns that China “will never allow anyone to split Taiwan from China through whatever means.” It says U.S. military assistance to Taiwan “send a wrong signal to the Taiwan authorities” and “does not serve a stable situation across the Taiwan Strait.” And it also says that if Taiwan declares independence, “the Chinese people and armed forces will resolutely and thoroughly crush it at any cost.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell downplayed the significance of those statements. “I think everybody realizes that this is not the time to escalate tensions in the straits, and we hope that will continue to be the case,” he said.

But the Chinese capability to follow through has never been better. Its 11 percent defense spending boost helped buy more Russian attack aircraft like the Su-30 strike fighter, a better space program including intelligence satellites, Russian Sovremennyy destroyers and other systems. The Pentagon’s annual report on the PRC released in May details these and more, and concludes that “China’s aspirations and efforts to achieve great power status have accelerated in recent years, especially the past two, as China’s leaders have evinced a greater sense of confidence in the international arena.” Two months after that report’s release, the Washington Times reported that China is proving to have capabilities American intelligence didn’t even know about. In July, it launched a new class of attack submarines that intelligence officials called a “technical surprise.” So, the PRC’s drive in recent years to build its military seems to have paid considerable dividends.

What does China plan to do with its new military heft? Clearly in part it hopes to send a message to the United States as we conduct operations in the Middle East and wage the war on terror. The Pentagon suggests a defensive rationale for the buildup. “China’s leaders appear to have concluded that the net effect of the U.S.-led campaign has been further encirclement of China, especially by placing U.S. military forces in Central Asia, strengthening U.S. defense relations with Pakistan, India and Japan, and returning the U.S. military to Southeast Asia,” the DoD report concludes. But China may also be seeking to enhance its position on Taiwan while the United States looks toward the Middle East. We hope the PRC’s hostile posture is just that — a posture — but the recent trends suggest the possibility of something altogether different.

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