Amid a growing consensus over the threats to Asian stability from China's military modernization, a vital debate is emerging over plans for a missile-defense system to protect American allies and forces in the region.
By far the most sensitive issue for debate - and one that carries the greatest risk of inciting a US-China conflict - is whether the United States should include Taiwan under a missile-defense umbrella. China, determined to reunify with the island it considers a renegade province, bitterly opposes such a US move.
Broadly framing the debate are competing Chinese and American visions of their strategic roles in Asia.
Most immediately, China's military buildup is aimed at securing its sovereignty claims in a distinct zone of influence that includes Taiwan and the South China Sea. In the long run, however, it is designed to establish China as the Asian superpower - at the expense of the United States, experts say.
"[Beijing's] long-term goal is to become the preeminent power in Asia, which would include excluding the United States as a major regional presence," says Alex Lennon, deputy director of studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
For its part, the United States seeks to maintain China as simply one of several important players in the region. Washington wants to bolster the regional military alliances it considers central both to Asian stability and US national interests. Beijing, however, opposes "the strengthening of military alliances," linking them in a defense white paper last year to "factors of instability" in international security.
Such conflicting strategies are a major hurdle to smooth US-China relations, US officials say.
"As the United States, China, and others in the region work to build ... [a] security architecture, the greatest challenge will be to manage the gap that still exists in strategic visions," according to a Pentagon paper on East Asian security issued in November.
Beijing's military modernization - and especially the buildup and development of ballistic and cruise missiles able to strike Taiwan - has recently brought this conflict over strategic visions into sharp relief.
Experts agree that China is engaged in a long-term effort to upgrade the quality and numbers of its ballistic and cruise missiles, partly in an effort to intimidate pro-independence forces on the island of Taiwan.
Last week, a Pentagon report to Congress revealed that China's missiles will give Beijing an "overwhelming advantage" over Taiwan by the year 2005. The number of missiles targeting Taiwan has increased from several dozen in 1996 to some 150 to 200 today, and are projected to reach 650 by 2005, says Mr. Lennon, citing official sources.
"At this time, the buildup is the only passably credible military deterrent which China has against independent-minded factions on Taiwan,"says Bates Gill, an Asian expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
China's missile program has fueled calls by some in Congress and US defense circles for including Taiwan in proposed US theater missile-defense (TMD) systems in Asia. Although still years off, plans are under way to research and deploy the "star wars" like system to protect Japan and South Korea - and US troops stationed there - from a North Korean missile threat.
But debate is raging in the US foreign-policy community - specifically between the State Department and Pentagon - over whether embracing Taiwan with TMD would ultimately hurt or help US interests. One view maintains that TMD for Taiwan would push China to accelerate its missile build-up, halt its cooperation with the US in weapons nonproliferation, and spur an arms race.
Beijing itself has warned of such consequences. "We are strongly opposed to [TMD] because we think it will trigger an arms race in the region," says Liu Xiaoming, a Chinese Embassy official here.
The development of missile-defense systems for Asia, as well as possibly for the US, "would trigger a crash course in Chinese ballistic missile delivery systems," says David Shambaugh, a China expert at George Washington University.
Chinese officials also indicate that they view TMD for Asia as a form of weapons proliferation by the US that would justify Beijing in breaking the rules of various nonproliferation regimes.
Missile defenses are "the single most important development likely to not only drive Chinese proliferation trends in the near to medium future," says Mr. Gill. TMD would reduce the likelihood that China would agree to longstanding US demands that it join a nonproliferation pact but could also lead Beijing to reconsider its pledges to cut off its missile trade with Pakistan and Iran, he says.
Another view - favored by the Pentagon, say sources - holds that TMD should go forward: China's missile development is driven by its aim of regaining Taiwan and will continue regardless of any US defense systems.