Like survivors picking through rubble for reusable bricks, the US Secretary of Defense and China's top leaders are searching for ways to rebuild military ties 14 months after NATO jets bombed Beijing's embassy in Belgrade.
There have been some signs of progress during Secretary William Cohen's talks here this week, but defense experts say that the US and China are much more likely to become rivals than allies in the coming years.
The US sees itself as "the indispensable nation" as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it recently, guardian of stability in the Asia-Pacific region. But as Beijing begins transforming its remarkable economic growth into military might, the potential rises for clashes between the two on issues ranging from US alliances in Asia to global weapons sales. Chinese officials, for example, were indignant yesterday when Israel, prompted by the US, scrapped a $250 million radar sale to China.
Cohen's talks in Beijing with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and the People's Liberation Army's top brass were aimed at forging stronger defense ties for the future, but were often marred in disputes of the present: US military support for democratic Taiwan, the American proposal to build a defense shield against missile attacks, and suspicions that China is transferring missile or nuclear technology to Pakistan, Iran, and Libya.
"The rivalry between the two is already emerging," says Peter Rodman, a defense analyst at the Washington-based Nixon Center.
With a defense budget one-fifth the size of Washington's, China's army is still decades behind US forces, but it is already taking sniper shots at the American security presence in Asia, he adds. Mr. Rodman cites China's stepped-up threats this year to use military means to reunify with Taiwan. Washington says it does not support Taiwan's independence, but provides the island with arms to ward off an invasion from the mainland.
When US arms negotiator John Holum said last week that Washington had not ruled out including the island in an American missile defense umbrella, the comment triggered a tirade of Chinese commentaries against the plan.
The state-run China Daily said yesterday that the US thirsted for "global hegemony," and added that "what is most devastating to global disarmament and arms control is the US attempt to deploy its national missile defense (NMD) system and theater missile defense system."
In response, Cohen told students at the Chinese National Defense University that "very often what you hear about the United States in your media does not fairly represent our plans or our purposes. To watch Chinese newscasts ... is to see a picture of the US as a hegemonistic nation, engaged in a campaign against other nations, including China."
Cohen added, "These misperceptions are not only unhelpful - they are untrue."
Chinese arms control and defense officials often say that US proposals to build an anti-nuclear shield could spark a arms race, and that a smaller shield for Taiwan would force the mainland to increase its missile forces.
But analyst Rodman says "there already is an arms race, and it started with China's missile build-up opposite Taiwan."
Other defense experts say that China's threat to boost its nuclear stockpile in response to NMD might also be a smoke screen.
"China is already expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal," says June Dreyer, an expert on the Chinese military at the University of Miami. "China wants to use the threat of a nuclear strike against San Francisco or Los Angeles as a deterrent to the US helping Taiwan," she adds.
China hopes to reclaim Taiwan as part of its reemergence as a great power, and knows that only the US stands in the way of that goal, say many experts. Although China is still outgunned in conventional forces, it hoped that the veiled threat of a nuclear response could ward off American intervention, but a US missile shield would negate that threat.
The Pentagon said in a recent report that "Since the early 1990s, the focus of Chinese military strategy has been on preparing for potential military contingencies along China's southeastern flank, especially in the Taiwan Strait."
It added that "China's military strategy emphasizes acquiring capabilities to counter improvements to Taiwan and other regional military forces, as well as preparing for capabilities the United States might bring to bear in any conflict."
Rodman says the emergence of US-style democracy in Taiwan over the last decade, along with the Chinese Army's crushing of pro-democracy protests here in 1989, helped break the defense partnership the US and China once had in countering the Soviet Union.
Following the US-led attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, "China sees the US more as an enemy, and as a superpower that is willing to use force to shove its ideas on human rights and democracy down the throats of other countries," says Professor Dreyer.
In an effort to prevent a NATO-like force coming to the aid of democrats in Taiwan or Buddhists in Tibet, China is trying to chip away at US security ties in Asia.
The China Daily charged Thursday that the American alliance with Japan "constitutes a threat to regional stability."
US defense experts say that for centuries Beijing dominated Asia, and hopes to regain that role by trying to eat away at US defense partnerships in the region with Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
Rodman says that veiled Chinese calls for the US to withdraw its troops from a future, reunified Korea are part of a larger plan "to delegitimize our security system in Asia."
Some experts say China's upcoming entry into the World Trade Organization will give it a stronger stake in adapting to rather than trying to change the international economic and security order.
Several say that China's evolution into a democracy would calm the fears of its neighbors and the head of the democratic West, and ease Beijing's rise as a great power of the East.
In the meantime, says Rodman, "although the US and China are moving in the direction of rivalry, that does not mean we are enemies."
"The US should try to increase contacts and exchanges with China now to manage China's rise and stabilize our relations," he says.
"If the US is firm and the Chinese are realistic about the international order, we could form a positive relationship with China."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society