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China stays cool as new US defense strategy targets Asia

Some Chinese scholars worry that the new US defense strategy could promote strategic competition in the long term. The most likely theater for crisis? The South China Sea.

By Staff writer / January 6, 2012

A color guard of US and Chinese flags awaits the plane of China's President Hu Jintao at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland in this April 12, 2010 file photo. President Barack Obama unveiled a defense strategy on Thursday that would expand the US military presence in Asia but shrink the overall size of the force as the Pentagon seeks to reduce spending by nearly half a trillion dollars after a decade of war.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File

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Beijing

As the Pentagon puts China firmly in its sights with a new US defense strategy that makes Asia its top priority, Chinese analysts are keeping their cool. Though targeting Beijing will complicate US-China relations, they say there is no reason to panic.

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“Military guys always seek the best but prepare for the worst,” says Jin Canrong, deputy head of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, commenting on the strategy document unveiled Thursday by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. That document calls for an increase in the number of US troops in Asia both in the face of uncertainty over China’s strategic goals, and North Korea's future.

Officially, Beijing was mute Friday about the US strategic shift to its doorstep. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Defense Ministry answered requests for comment. But several scholars closely linked to foreign policy-making circles say they do not see the move as a fundamental shift in US attitudes to China.

“It does not mean that the US is trying to contain China” as it once sought to contain the former Soviet Union, says Yuan Peng, head of the US department at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government-linked think tank. “They are hedging, but they still hope to have positive relations.”

 American analysts agreed. “This document emphasizes the pessimistic scenario. It is necessarily an insurance policy,” says Denny Roy, a security expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii. “You don’t see the full breadth of US policy toward China here.”

That does not mean, however, that Washington is not worried by China’s intentions as it modernizes its military, building advanced stealth jet fighters, developing an anti-ship missile that could keep US vessels 1,500 km (about 932 miles) away from the Chinese coastline, and refurbishing an old Soviet aircraft carrier with which to run sea trials.

Promoting strategic competition

“China would not be wrong to conclude that the US is concerned by its military modernization and its intentions,” says Bonnie Glaser, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But it would be wrong to say China is now a US adversary.

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