While Iraq and Iran are front and center for the Bush administration's foreign policy managers, the most significant single relationship for the United States in the coming decade may be that with China.
China in recent years has achieved incredible economic development, growing at an astonishing rate. It has launched a vigorous new diplomatic campaign throughout the world, not the least to tie up new sources of oil for its growing needs. It is now the world's second-largest consumer and third-largest importer of oil. It has become a major player on the world stage. Its communist leaders assert that its new international prominence is all part of what it calls its "Peaceful Development Road" policy.
But it has also been building up its military power. Small wonder, then, that US-China watchers are paying special attention to the release last week of the Pentagon's annual report to Congress on the state of China's military.
The report finds the People's Liberation Army transforming itself from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to a more modern force capable of fighting short-duration, high-intensity conflicts against high-tech adversaries. China's ability to sustain military power at a distance is limited. But the Pentagon assessment says that China has the "greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional US military advantages."
This new buildup has troubled US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who pondered publicly last year: "Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?" The Pentagon claims there is a lack of transparency about Chinese intentions and believes actual Chinese expenditure on military programs is between two and three times greater than officially disclosed figures.
The latest Pentagon assessment is that in the near-term, China's military buildup is probably focused on preparing for "Taiwan Strait contingencies, including the possibility of US intervention." China has deployed more than 700 mobile and short-range ballistic missiles in its coastal garrisons opposite Taiwan, and has boosted its ground-force military personnel in the three military regions opposite Taiwan to 400,000. It has more than 700 combat aircraft based within range of Taiwan and is acquiring advanced fighter aircraft from Russia.
The US treads a delicate path in the region. On the one hand, it recognizes mainland China and has extensive trade and economic relations with Beijing. But on the other hand, it has emotional and defense commitments to Taiwan and would clearly be involved in the island's defense if it became in military conflict with the mainland communist regime. What could trigger such conflict would be a formal declaration by Taiwan of its independence from China, which regards Taiwan as a part of China proper, although it has no control or current authority over the island. To avoid such a confrontation, the US has pressured Taiwanese politicians to downplay the independence issue, thus enabling the US to further a continued policy of engagement with mainland China, while maintaining its cordial, supportive policy toward Taiwan.
While the primary concern is over any potentially aggressive Chinese actions in Asia, the Pentagon report also chronicles China's development of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, which can target most of the world, including the continental US. These are supplemented by new submarine-launched ballistic missiles. While China's naval forces are not massive, they include some 55 attack submarines.
When China's President Hu Jintao visited Washington last month, his first visit since becoming president, both he and President Bush worked hard to convey an image of cordiality, but each circled the other warily.
President Hu seems anxious to avert any crisis that could disrupt China's extremely profitable trade relationship with the US. But he is dealing with turmoil and even uprisings from peasants at home who are restless with government bureaucracy. It is not unknown for a country's leader to invent troubles abroad to distract from problems at home.
Taiwan could spiral out of control.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush finds China helpful in attempting to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, but less helpful in taking the same tack with Iran, with which China has significant economic ties. Bush also has constituents at home who remain suspicious of China, and he may recently have been shoring up India as a counterbalance to China in Asia.
The relationship between the US and China is, as Bush aptly described it, "very positive and complex."
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.