By LEE H. HAMILTON
WASHINGTON -- Americans are used to hearing about the Chinese economy, but there is less public awareness of the progress being made by the Chinese military. Like its economy, China's armed services are on the rise.
U.S. officials and outside experts agree that China is undertaking a comprehensive modernization of its military. The Chinese military has gotten smaller but smarter. China's ability to deliver nuclear warheads on Americans cities is expanding. Instead of the hulking ground forces it has maintained for decades, China has invested in high-tech weaponry, airpower, cruise missiles, and anti-ship missiles that could target American ships defending Taiwan; this modernization is one reason the United States is applying strong pressure on the European Union to maintain an arms embargo with China.
Behind this progress is a capacity for enormous growth. China has a $1.65 trillion economy that grows at nearly 10 percent each year. Estimates place Chinese military spending at anywhere from $30 billion to $90 billion.
While even the highest estimates do not come close to the nearly $500 billion that the United States spends on the military each year, China's rapidly growing economy will enable rapidly growing defense spending.
The immediate challenge for the United States is Taiwan. We officially maintain a "one-China" policy, and for years we have made clear our readiness to defend Taiwan against Chinese invasion.
China has responded by building up its capacity to launch a military strike, and in March it passed an "anti-secession" law, pledging to respond to any Taiwanese move toward independence with military force. The United States retains an edge in any prospective conflict, but China now has about 700 missiles on its coast pointed at Taiwan, and this number is growing. An armed conflict could inflict deep costs on the United States, and those potential costs mount as China's military capacity grows.
The long-term challenge is in the region. Since World War II, the United States has been the dominant power in East Asia and the Pacific. A rising China could challenge that leadership. Already, China's military presence and influence is growing in the South China Sea and parts of Southeast Asia, and the United States has been dependent upon China to help broker a deal to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
As China's need for oil and gas grows along with its economy, the Chinese might be more willing to assert themselves in Asia and beyond.
How should the United States respond?
We should neither over-react nor under-react. If we over-react -- through a build-up in arms or rhetoric -- we could create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we treat China like an enemy, it will behave like one, and push its military development accordingly. Conversely, if we under-react -- by ignoring China's rising power in the region -- then we could be caught unawares. China is not a global military power, but it is well on its way to being the predominant Asian military power.
The United States should monitor the development of China's military to discern if its capabilities are changing significantly. We should continue and expand our dialogue with the Chinese on military issues. We should cooperate in fighting terrorism and curbing nuclear proliferation, and continue U.S.-Chinese military to military ties, with limits on the technology available to China.
We should establish effective bilateral channels to communicate on a continuing basis over strategic issues, and in the event of a crisis -- so that a misunderstanding or minor incident does not precipitate an unnecessary conflict.
So much of our attention is trained on the Middle East these days, but we cannot ignore East Asia. Recent weeks have brought troubling demonstrations of Chinese and Japanese nationalism; territorial disputes among China, Japan and South Korea; and the persistence of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The United States must use its power and influence to work for an Asia where China, Taiwan, Japan and the Koreas can peacefully coexist and develop at the same time. Arms-races, nuclear proliferation and heated rhetoric in East Asia threaten the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers stationed in South Korea and Japan, and the stability of the global economy.
The 21st century will almost certainly witness a China that is more assertive on the global scene -- economically and militarily. The goal for the United States is to conduct our relations with this rising power in a way that preserves peace, while safeguarding American national security and American interests.
X Lee H. Hamilton is the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services