March 15, 2005

March 15, 2005 | Commentary on Asia

China Challenge

Beijing will be the last stop on Secre tary of State Condoleezza Rice's latest globetrot to six Asian countries this week - but you can be sure it will be her top priority.

With all the recent drama in the Middle East, it's easy to lose sight of the most important strategic issue in American foreign-policy today: China's rise as a world power.

With a white-hot economy, a burgeoning defense buildup, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and a growing nuclear arsenal, China is fast becoming an Asian - and global - superpower.

Increasingly confident of its political and economic clout, Beijing is dead center of many of the days' most volatile international security issues, including North Korea, Iran and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

American relations with Beijing are arguably more stable than at any time in the recent past. But the potential for political, even military, confrontation with the U.S. and its allies over critical security issues is ever present - and growing.

By far the greatest concern is China's military buildup. Buttressed by double-digit defense budget growth for 14 years in a row, including a 13 percent bump-up this year, China now has the world's second largest defense budget at $65 billion.

Supported by bulk purchases of advanced Russian fighters, submarines and destroyers, China's buildup clearly exceeds its self-defense needs. From Japan to India, questions about Chinese strategic ambitions are making Asian capitals - and Washington - nervous.

Nowhere is there more anxiety than in Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province from the 1949 civil war. Intending to unite Taiwan with the mainland, Beijing refuses to renounce the use of force in settling Taiwan's future.

The problem: U.S. policy insists that Taiwan's political future be determined peacefully, meaning that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would draw an American military response.

As CIA Director Porter Goss told Congress last month, "Beijing's military modernization and military buildup is tilting the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait [toward China]."

Indeed, Goss warned that new Chinese military capabilities increasingly threaten American security and military forces in the Pacific: new ballistic missiles, submarines and "more robust, survivable nuclear-armed missiles," capable of striking the continental United States.

The newest provocation is China's consideration today of an anti-secession law directed at Taiwan. The law arrogates to China the right to use military force against Taiwan should Beijing "perceive" Taipei to be moving toward independence.

Of course, the law is pure Chinese saber-rattling meant to deter Taiwan and counter America's Taiwan policy.

Restarting the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program will also be high on Rice's Beijing agenda. Pyongyang crowed in February that it does indeed have nukes. Making matters worse, North Korea recently ended a self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles, capable of reaching parts of the western United States.

China, the North's long-time ally and biggest aid and energy donor, has more influence with Pyongyang than anyone. Yet U.S. officials have voiced frustration that Beijing isn't putting the squeeze on North Korea over its nukes or coming back to the negotiating table.

Explanation: Beijing is stringing out the six-party talks - which haven't been held since last June - to increase its leverage with Washington over such sensitive issues as American support for Taiwan.

Another critical matter: Iran. The European Union and the United States are convinced that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons - but Beijing has already declared that it won't support taking Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for punitive economic sanctions.

Why? Economics and America's global pre-eminence.

China recently penned a 25-year, $100 billion oil/gas deal with Iran to satisfy its seemingly-endless appetite for energy. And taking Tehran to the United Nations would hurt future energy - and other pending commercial - deals.

Beijing also wants to divide America's strategic attention by strengthening Iran's hand in the Middle East. According to the CIA, China has aided Iranian ballistic missile, chemical weapons and conventional arms programs.

The United States is seeking a cooperative and constructive relationship with China, but Beijing's behavior is increasingly running directly counter to American (and allied) interests.

China craves international acceptance and respect as a responsible power. To gain it, China must resolve Taiwan's future peacefully, help dismantle North Korea's nuclear program and end its support for Iran's WMD and missile programs. Nothing less will suffice.

Rice's two-day visit to the "Middle Kingdom" won't resolve all these problems. But hot off her successful European and Middle Eastern swings, her Beijing visit will let her set the tenor and tone for managing this century's most critical foreign policy challenge.


Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post