China’s covert military build-up ‘sows distrust’

Pentagon’s top Asia expert says US is forced to assume the worst.

CHINA’S secrecy about its military build-up is sowing distrust in Washington and uncertainty in Asia.

This is the view of the Pentagon’s outgoing top Asia hand Richard Lawless, who warned that China’s burgeoning military might – with capabilities being developed to dominate the region – was “pretty damn threatening” because Beijing was not being transparent in its intentions.

Mr Lawless, the Deputy Undersecretary of Defence who is expected to fill a newly created post of special adviser on Asian affairs to Defence Secretary Robert Gates, said that the Chinese had been less than forthcoming so far in their relations with the US.

“They have been more willing to engage but it is engagement by millimetres and increments,” he told a select media group that included The Straits Times last Friday. “Our attention to and willingness to engage has not been reciprocated sufficiently.”

He said Washington, for example, gave unprecedented access to the People’s Liberation Army’s Chief of Naval Operations Wu Shengli when he visited the US in April this year. Vice-Admiral Wu met several military commanders and visited navy bases and schools.

But when the Pentagon made arrangements for his US counterpart Admiral Michael Mullen – who has since become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Beijing did not offer the same level of access.

“I guess the key word here is disappointment,” said Mr Lawless.

He also pointed out that Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng, the PLA’s chief of military intelligence, said China was prepared to set up a bilateral crisis hotline during last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

But to date, the Americans have yet to hear from the Chinese, Mr Lawless said.

Beijing has also been reluctant to engage Washington on its strategic nuclear forces that are gathering pace in development and deployment.

Mr Lawless said China’s nuclear deterrence was of real concern to the US because its structure was rapidly evolving, with significant changes to its forces by 2010; PLA capabilities were being developed beyond a Taiwan contingency “to create a hegemonic situation in the region”.

“It isn’t just about the ones that can hit Chicago; it’s the ones that can also strike with much more lethality within the region,” Mr Lawless said.

The US response has been to build up its forces in Asia, spurring what some analysts believe is an arms race in the region. Washington is also strengthening its defence links with key allies in the region – a move that Beijing believes is an attempt to contain China.

There are major trade concerns – and nagging doubts – about Beijing’s ability to police its arms sales, especially Chinese armour-piercing ammunition that has made its way to the Taleban in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq. Mr Lawless revealed that Washington had brought up this issue with China.

Despite these occasional hiccups and complaints about PLA’s burgeoning power, Sino-US ties have been fairly stable, especially with both sides working together on critical issues like North Korea.

Beijing’s thinking, however, is that nothing substantive can be achieved over the remaining 17 months of the Bush administration.

“We are waiting for the next group to come in,” a Chinese diplomat told The Straits Times.

“China also believes that like any other sovereign country our national interests take precedence. Whether it is Darfur or Iran or our military, why should we subordinate our interests to satisfy every concern of the Americans?”

Mr Lawless said China had to be a responsible stakeholder and step up engagement with the US.

“We’re not trying to presume a hostile intent on the part of China,” he said.

“But absent a solid, good, in-depth dialogue, we have to assume the worst-possible scenarios will exist in East Asia.”

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