The pace and scope of China's military buildup raise questions about the government's intentions toward its neighbors, says Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's new top policy adviser.
In his first interview since replacing Douglas Feith as undersecretary of defense for policy, Eric Edelman described China as a rising power that is at a "strategic crossroads" after years of impressive economic growth.
"It's a little bit hard to see" what security threat could trouble China enough to prompt such a big military buildup, Edelman said during an interview in his Pentagon office.
"It far surpasses anything that any of China's neighbors in Asia are doing or would be capable of doing," he said. "So it raises inevitably a question in people's minds: To what end is this activity aimed? I don't think we know the answer, completely."
The Bush administration, which had rocky relations with China during the early years of President George W. Bush's first term, is engaging in a series of high-level visits to China, including a planned Rumsfeld trip in October.
Edelman said the administration's goal is to reach a better understanding with allies, particularly in Europe, on how to approach China in ways that encourage Beijing's leaders to pursue a peaceful path in the future.
"We would do well to work together with our friends and allies in Europe to see if we can come to a more common view of that and how we can do it," Edelman said. "The odds of it happening go up dramatically if everybody else works together."
Edelman, who runs a policy organization of about 1,200 people, took the job Aug. 9 as a recess appointment, meaning Bush used a constitutional power to bypass Senate confirmation and install Edelman while Congress was in recess.
An argument over the release of Pentagon documents related to Iraq has blocked Edelman's confirmation for several months. He said his nomination was resubmitted to the Senate this week, although it is not clear that it will be acted upon. If not confirmed, his recess appointment would expire in January 2007.
A career diplomat who specialized in Soviet and East European affairs, Edelman said he was in Turkey, where he was US ambassador, when Rumsfeld called him last spring to ask if he would take the Pentagon job. He said he had been contemplating retirement until that moment but decided to accept after talking with Rumsfeld. Before going to Turkey he was a national security assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney from February 2001 to June 2003.
One of the issues he faces in his new assignment is the future of US cooperation with North Korea on recovering the remains of US servicemen who died there during the 1950-53 Korean War. To the regret of some veterans groups, the administration halted that last May, contending the North Koreans had created an unsafe environment.
Edelman said it was not clear whether the administration would try to restore that program.
"As a general proposition it is right and important that we do everything we can to ascertain the situation of the MIA and POW folks whose names are on the books as not-accounted-for," he said. "We owe that as a nation and as a department to the families and to those who may still be out there alive, but also to the memory of those who are not but whose situations we have not been able to completely ascertain yet."