While US political leaders and citizens are concentrating their attention on Iraq, the Chinese appear to have embarked on a long-range plan intended to challenge the US for military superiority in Asia.
China's latest white paper on defense asserts: "To build a powerful and fortified national defense is a strategic task of China's modernization drive." Using code words for the US, the paper says: "Hegemonism and power politics remain key factors in undermining international security."
The white paper envisions three phases: to lay a solid foundation by 2010, to make "major progress" by 2020 and to reach the strategic goal of building armed forces capable of winning high-tech wars "by the mid-21st century."
In a report more candid than earlier versions, last year's paper says Chinese military spending from 1990 to 2005 rose at an annual average rate of 9.6 percent, after adjusting for inflation.
The US National Intelligence Director, John Negroponte, reinforced that view on Thursday, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee: "We assess that China's aspirations for great-power status, threat perceptions and security strategy would drive this modernization effort even if the Taiwan problem were resolved."
That is the highest growth rate of defense spending among the world's large nations.
Beijing's military budget for last year, the report says, was US$35.9 billion, up from US$31.3 billion the year before. US intelligence analysts estimate that China's overall military spending is at least twice as much since many defense related expenditures don't show up in published accounts.
The white paper indicates that most of the spending increases have gone into the navy, air force and what the Chinese call the Second Artillery, which is their nuclear force. These are the services whose missions are to project power beyond China's borders and coasts.
Targeting of US forces in East Asia is sometimes cloaked in euphemisms, but the meanings are clear. The white paper asserts: "Some developed countries have increased their input into the military and speeded up R&D [research and development] of high-tech weaponry to gain military superiority."
At other times, the paper is forthright in disclosing how the Chinese see things: "The United States is accelerating its realignment of military deployment to enhance its military capability in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States and Japan are strengthening their military alliance in pursuit of operational integration."
Although the paper has an undertone of hostility toward the US, it acknowledges the benefits of military exchanges last year: "The Chinese Navy and the US Navy conducted joint maritime search and rescue exercises in the offshore waters of San Diego."
Nor is the Taiwan question neglected. The white paper contends: "The struggle to oppose and contain the separatist forces for Taiwan independence and their activities remains a hard one." The tone, however, seems less harsh than that of the 2004 white paper.
On the other hand, the People's Liberation Army has adopted a new policy that, if carried out, would gladden the hearts of soldiers in any army, anywhere: "The food supply for officers and men aims at providing sufficient nutrition rather than just serving enough food."
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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