That Murky Threat from China

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Ever since the Soviet Union consigned itself to the ash heap of history (along with the Pentagon's annual publication on Soviet Military Power), Congress has ordered the U.S. military to report annually "on the current and future military strategy of the People's Republic of China." So on Monday, the Pentagon turned out a 66-page report to help Congress foster its own fears. It's part of a symbiotic relationship: Congress orders the study, and then lawmakers get to cite it as justification for buying more weapons. Some in national-security circles refer to the phenomenon as a "self-licking ice cream cone."

But unlike the old Soviet Union, the Pentagon can't quite cite a clear and present danger. So it's pointing to China's secretiveness as justification for assuming the worst. "The lack of transparency in China's military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation," the report said. "This situation will naturally lead to hedging against the unknown." The Pentagon adds that China spent up to $139 billion on its military, up to three times its declared budget (but only about a quarter of the Pentagon's). "The real story is the continuing development, the continuing modernization, the continuing acquisition of capabilities and the corresponding and unfortunate lack of understanding, lack of transparency about the intentions behind those and the way they're going to be deployed," David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for east Asia, said Monday at a press conference on the China report. (See pictures of China on the wild side.)

The Pentagon study is certain to be used as ammunition by the China bashers in Congress. "By 2010 China will have almost twice the number of submarines — not the same capability, but almost twice the number of submarines — as the United States," Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, warned at a recent House Budget Committee hearing. Senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that during the 1990s, Beijing's military procurement "increased by 1,000 percent."

While the report's existence owes much to that Washington ice cream cone, there is cause for concern. While China remains pre-occupied by Taiwan, its navy and air force are increasingly expanding their reach in ways that suggest it is flexing its military might beyond that island, which mainland China regards as a rebel province. Last year, Beijing tested an anti-satellite weapon and Pentagon officials believe it has been behind hacker attacks on Pentagon computer systems. The report says China's long-range strategic missile force — capable of hitting the U.S. — continues to grow, as does its arsenal of ship-killing cruise missiles.

Yet all this comes even as military-to-military relations are improving. Of course, there was nowhere to go but up after the U.S. mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and after China forced a U.S. Navy spy plane to land on China's Hainan Island in 2001 and held its 24-person crew for 11 days. Admiral Timothy Keating, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that relations were improving during his recent visit to Beijing. "We're getting to know these guys," he said. But he stressed the need for the Chinese to be more open concerning their future military plans and intentions.

The two nations took a step in that direction last week, when the Pentagon and Chinese military agreed to create a hot line — similar to the link between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War — so military leaders can communicate and keep small crises from ballooning into big ones. But setting it up was a long and protracted process. Keating said trying to get in touch with his Chinese counterparts has been as difficult as getting in touch with New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. "Sometimes you get him, sometimes you don't," Keating said. "It's as tough to get these guys as it is Steinbrenner." The hot line, defense officials say, should be up and running in a couple of weeks.

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