Top Brass Tries to Sell China On US Military Role in Asia

Shalikashvili, while visiting Beijing this week, defends 100,000 US troop presence against China's fears of being 'contained.'

President Clinton won over Russia. But can he win China?

On Wednesday, Mr. Clinton hailed a pact in which Russia accepted an expanded US and NATO military role in Europe. But this week in Beijing, America's top general met resistance to the idea of keeping a large US military presence in Asia.

Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the most senior US military officer to visit China since 1983. His visit, which ends today, was part of a US campaign to persuade Beijing that the US wants to "engage" and not "contain" China, as many believe.

That the visit came just 14 months after China and US forces faced off in a tense standoff near Taiwan shows how much both sides are trying to put more trust into a fragile big-power relationship.

But his visit came amid renewed calls in the US that China is a threat to global stability and rising alarm here that Washington may be curbing Beijing's growing economic and military power.

Despite Beijing's call for the US to eventually scale down its military presence, General Shalikashvili said any withdrawal of the 100,000 American troops now in Asia could set off a heated arms race.

In stead, he asked for increased communications and transparency between US and Chinese armed forces to build confidence and lower the chance of military miscalculations.

Congressional threats in Washington to limit trade with China, continuing tensions over Taiwan, and a perceived American arrogance of power have all fueled the flames of Chinese nationalism and anti-US sentiment.

"Even Chinese scholars who have long admired the US are beginning to believe the Chinese government when it says Washington wants to prevent China's rise as an Asian power," says a Chinese intellectual who runs a small business here.

In his meetings with Chinese military leaders over four days, Shalikashvili tried to bridge the distrust that was created in March 1996 when two American aircraft carriers engaged in a near-showdown with Chinese forces off the coast of Taiwan.

The US naval move to defend Taiwan came after China shot "test" missiles toward the island in an apparent move to intimidate an election that might have led to Taiwan declaring official independence from the mainland.

"If left unchecked, mutual misperceptions and tensions between Washington and Beijing could trigger a new cold war," says a Chinese government official.

"Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has needed a new rationale to justify its defense budget, and some Americans are creating the myth that a dangerous communist dragon is rising in the East," he adds.

Yet in a speech at China's National Defense University, Shalikashvili indicated that China is not considered an adversary and said that the end of the cold war had marked a fundamental shift in American policy toward "engagement."

"There are some people here in China who believe the United States seeks to contain China. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

Although each side has since pulled back from the brink of confrontation, "the issues of Taiwan's future and American arms sales to the island present the biggest threat to improved Chinese-US ties," says Zhang Yebai, a senior fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The Chinese official adds: "Taiwan's drive to gain international standing and seeming American support has caused hard-liners in the Chinese military to push for a stronger role in foreign policy decision-making.

"There is a danger that if hard-liners in both Beijing and Washington continue to paint the other side as an enemy, China and the US could move toward confrontation."

Many China scholars in the US agree.

"There is a potential for a dangerous escalation of military tensions over the Taiwan issue," says Michael Swaine, a defense analyst at the California-based RAND think tank.

He adds that US officials who interpret China's intimidation of Taiwan as a warning that Beijing is evolving into an expansionist power are wrong. And "fears that China's economic growth and military modernization are part of a plan to replace the US as the dominant power in Asia are wrong," says Mr. Swaine.

Although China has engaged in minor disputes with some of its neighbors over islands off its coast, it has never displayed the ruthless ambition for territorial gains that marked the Soviet Union.

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