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A Game of Watching, Waiting with China

By Richard Halloran

In security issues these days, the United States and China are like a couple of boxers early in the bout, sparring and circling warily around the edge of the ring as they test each other.

From the U.S. corner, a flurry of recent statements by American military leaders and the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, have made clear three themes:

* The U.S. seeks to deter China from aggression and particularly seeks to dissuade the Chinese from miscalculating American power and intentions.

* American military leaders see China as a potential adversary but assert that open conflict is not inevitable.

* China's military forces are not capable of defeating the U.S. now with either conventional forces or nuclear weapons.

Thus, Gates concluded: "I do not see China at this point as a strategic adversary of the United States." In a discussion with reporters in Washington, he added, however: "We are simply watching to see what they are doing."

For their part, the Chinese announced during their National People's Congress in Beijing that military spending would rise 18 percent this year to about $45 billion. Most analysts outside of China contend that actual Chinese spending is at least twice that because so much is hidden. Moreover, Chinese costs are relatively low, which means they can buy more military power for less money.

In speeches before the Chinese Congress, which has just concluded, the belligerent tone that has marked some Chinese pronouncements was notably absent. Most speeches as reported on Chinese Web sites were routine. President Hu Jintao, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, merely exhorted the People's Liberation Army to train harder.

The chief of the general staff, Liang Guanglie, urged the PLA: "Step up the effort to prepare for military struggle." A senior officer from the missile force, Liu Qide, reiterated the party line on Taiwan, the island over which Beijing claims sovereignty: "We must get ready to deal with it and be resolved to foil anyone's intrigue to secede Taiwan from China."

Among the Americans, a former head of the Pacific Command, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, was critical, as have been other U.S. military leaders, of China's penchant for secrecy: "The Chinese have been weak for so long that they have adopted the traditional tactic of the weak -- hide what you are doing so you don't expose weakness and others may think you are stronger than you are."

Interviewed by the staff of the Washington office of the East-West Center, a research and educational institute in Honolulu, Blair said: "It is not to China's advantage to hide its capabilities. In fact, the Chinese are scaring people by hiding their capabilities. China's neighbors and some in the United States suspect that it has aggressive, very powerful military designs.

"The Chinese must be willing to show their neighbors and the United States that their military program makes sense from a point of view of defending the nation's interests," he said. "They must be willing to make clear that their military program is not designed to give China a capability for aggression toward its neighbors."

Similarly, Adm. William Fallon, who has just left the Pacific Command in Hawai'i to take over the Central Command that is fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in his final report to the U.S. Congress that the objective of Sino-U.S. exchanges was "to increase transparency between our respective militaries."

Further, he said such military exchanges, which were gradually expanded during his watch at Pacific Command, were intended "to break down barriers to understanding and reduce the potential for miscalculation."

Adm. Timothy Keating, who is scheduled to replace Fallon later this month, told a congressional committee that he planned to continue "a series of robust engagement with, principally, the People's Liberation Army." Referring to the China-Taiwan confrontation, Keating said: "If we deal with some frequency at several levels with the Chinese, if we exercise with them -- all services -- if we ensure they are aware of our capabilities and our intent, I think we will go a long way to diffusing potential strife across the Strait of Taiwan."

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, told newsmen in the same discussion with Secretary Gates that deterrence has two elements -- capability and intent. He said the U.S. must be sure that it has the military power to handle a threat "so that our potential adversaries don't miscalculate our capacities."

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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