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US more cautious than wary as China's reach grows

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 2005


This 30-mile-long volcanic island appears on a map like stray bit of tropical spackling flung out in the Pacific. Honolulu is eight hours east, Tokyo four hours north, Hong Kong and Jakarta four hours west and south. The rest is ocean.

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Guam has been a sleepy supply depot for decades. But it is now becoming known as the "tip of the spear" of US Pacific forces. This US territorial outpost no longer means just "fuel and ammo" but "subs and bombers" as well.

Some officers say Guam's new priority is a result of diverse missions in the Pacific, like tsunami relief. But most agree it has its source in the "unknowns" in East Asia - code language for Pentagon concerns about the rise of China - with its claims on Taiwan and rivalry with Japan - and a region with friction over oil rights, North Korea.

"[Guam] hasn't had a continuous bomber presence since Vietnam," says Lt. Col. Hans Lageschulte, a flight operations officer here. "But things changed two years ago."

At that time, about 12,000 military aircraft were landing on the longest runway in the Pacific. Last year, that figure was 26,000. Bulldozers are flattening earth for a second parallel runway. Parked wing to wing on Andersen's tarmac are seven B-1B Lancer bombers with names like "Night Hawk" and "Live Free or Die." Their gray swept-back forms now carry JDAMs, or guided munitions. Each plane carries the payload of three B-52 bombers. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the B-52 bomber.]

"We [US forces] are developing an ops [operations] mentality in the Pacific," says David Crockett, as he stands inside a B1 cockpit loaded with upgrades. A B1 squad leader who wears titanium Armani glasses, Colonel Crockett is a veteran of Kosovo and Afghanistan. "We are training more and staying out longer."

China's military is beginning to show signs of serious capability, as it rises and spends in tandem with its new-wealth economy (see Part 1, Nov. 17). As China's submarines and destroyers begin to navigate the Pacific Ocean currents, US forces in Asia are becoming more robust and watchful - even as the Pentagon seeks better ties with the PLA.

The PLA has reformed 15 percent of itself into a core modern force capable of giving the US trouble around Taiwan. It has newly effective cruise missiles, three new classes of submarines, and a significant new defense industrial base from which to develop advanced weapons.

China lags behind the US in areas like stealth technology and the ability to project power

But this does not mean China now has a state-of-the-art Army, nor that China is on the verge of Pacific military parity with the US. To take one example, the PLA currently can "lift" or move only one division, about 15,000 personnel. It has no carrier force. In fact, there are so many wide gaps between China and the US - from stealth technology to "battlefield vision" - that some experts say China lags 20 years behind in the area of purely military matchups.

In the past year, however, a dawning realization of new Chinese military capability has been so surprising that many analysts warn of overcompensating, and of attributing to China far more threat than there is. They point to fearful commentary about Chinese ambitions and warmaking ability that is largely based on lists of Chinese hardware - planes, missiles, tanks, subs. Yet few serious military planners feel such lists are a genuine method of assessing military prowess. As one Pentagon source noted, quoting an old CIA joke, "no one ever lost their job here by analyzing a threat."