- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

A picture of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and China’s Defense Minister Gen. Cao Gangchuan, taken as they reviewed troops in Beijing recently, is a subtle mark of the relations between the United States and these days.

Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Cao were standing at attention and saluting, Mr. Rumsfeld with hand over heart and Gen. Cao with hand to the visor of his cap, as a band played their national anthems to welcome Mr. Rumsfeld to China in his first visit since taking office in 2001.

They were standing at a 90-degree angle to one another, Gen. Cao facing forward and Mr. Rumsfeld to the right. They were not back-to-back as they might have been if they were adversaries, nor were they side-by-side as they would have been as allies. Rather, they are canted away from each other.

Until now, the Bush administration, preoccupied with the campaign against terror, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestine conflict, has neglected U.S. relations with China, the rising power of Asia and a potential adversary in the future.

That began to change last June when Mr. Rumsfeld took part in the annual Shangri-La gathering of civilian and military defense leaders in Singapore.

That was followed by a visit to China in September by Adm. William J. Fallon, who leads the U.S. Pacific Command from his headquarters in Hawaii, and by Mr. Rumsfeld this month. President George W. Bush is scheduled to travel to China in mid-November.

In substance, the U.S. leaders have repeatedly expressed skepticism over China’s expanding military power. They have, however, toned down the rhetoric compared to the administration’s aggressive, even belligerent, tenor during its early days in office. Today, the administration seems to have inserted the proverbial mailed fist into a velvet glove.

In his address to the Shangri-La conference, which was arranged by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London and named for the hotel in which it is held, Mr. Rumsfeld raised the question of Chinese military spending, its expanding missile force and its ability to project military power.

“Since no nation threatens China,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, “one must wonder why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?”

Adm. Fallon, during his trip to China, carried that a bit further, according to U.S. officers. The admiral sought to deter potential Chinese military threats by quietly reminding Chinese leaders that the U.S. had the capability and resolve to help defend its interests in Asia, including the defense of Taiwan, the island over which Beijing claims sovereignty.

At the same time, Adm. Fallon balanced that stance by proposing new military exchanges with China, inviting Chinese officers to observe U.S. military exercises and proposing that American officers make reciprocal visits to China.

During his visit to China this month, Mr. Rumsfeld evidently sought to influence rising young leaders of China, addressing the Central Party School, where Communist Party officials are trained, and the Academy of Military Science, which educates young officers of the People’s Liberation Army.

“As I look at all of you,” he told the students at the party school, “it occurs to me that in many ways China’s future depends on decisions you will make as your country’s next generation of leaders.” He asked them to consider: “What kind of future do you envision? What role will you have in helping the Chinese people achieve the political and economic benefits to which they aspire?”

“What future will you help bring for China as a constructive partner in the international system?” Mr. Rumsfeld continued. “When the China of tomorrow comes, what will you tell your children and your great grandchildren of the role you played during your lives in helping to build it?”

At the military school, Mr. Rumsfeld said that forging good relations between China and the U.S. “will require both cooperation and candor.” Repeating much of what he had said in Singapore, Mr. Rumsfeld pointed to the need for more Chinese information about military spending, missile deployments and weapons purchases.

“Many countries with interests in the [Asia-Pacific] region are asking questions about China’s intentions,” he said. “Clarity would generate greater certainty in the region,” he added in a veiled reference to China’s long-standing penchant for secrecy.

Gen. Cao, perhaps inadvertently, answered Mr. Rumsfeld’s question about China’s intentions. In a brief press conference, he suggested that China wanted to be treated as America’s equal. “We believe,” he said, “both China and the United States are big powers and very influential countries.”

Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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