June 6, 2005
SINGAPORE — Critical comments by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld regarding China’s growing military capabilities are raising fears among East Asian countries that they could become ensnared in a new period of strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
Many East Asian diplomats say they are eager to see the U.S. remain engaged in the region as a means to underpin stability. Privately, they also express concern about China’s booming economy and its potential to undercut their countries’ ability to attract investment and compete for export markets.
These leaders also are quick to caution the Bush administration against being overly confrontational toward Beijing on trade and security. This approach could divide Asia into competing camps and undermine its prospects for cooperation and growth, they say.
“We do not want to take sides” in an escalating competition between the U.S. and China, said Sukhumbhand Paribatra, a former deputy foreign minister of Thailand. “We cannot take sides.”
“It’s not a zero-sum game….If you treat China as an enemy, you’ll make it one,” another senior Asian diplomat said.
Mr. Rumsfeld spoke Saturday in Singapore at a meeting of Asian-Pacific defense ministers, noting Beijing’s military expansion in recent years. He said the Pentagon is close to releasing its annual report on China’s military capacity, and U.S. officials think Beijing’s military expenditures are significantly higher than what the Chinese acknowledge. He also said China’s military infrastructure increasingly will allow it to project its might well beyond its coastlines and principal strategic concern, the Taiwan Strait — potentially creating a strategic imbalance in Asia.
“China appears to be expanding its missile forces, allowing them to reach targets in many areas of the world, not just the Pacific region, while also expanding its missile capabilities here in the region,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment?”
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Mr. Rumsfeld also cast China as a country whose economic and military development is out of sync with its political system. He suggested Beijing could face a future crisis if doesn’t take steps toward promoting more democracy.
“Ultimately, China will need to embrace some form of open, representative government if it is to fully achieve the benefits to which its people aspire,” he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarks come as the Bush administration has stepped up its criticism of China on a wide range of issues, from its exchange rate to textiles exports.
The speech sparked an immediate response from Beijing’s chief delegate at the Singapore conference, director general of the Asian Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cui Tiankai. He asked Mr. Rumsfeld: “Do you truly believe that China is under no threat whatsoever from any part of the world, and do you truly believe that the United States feels threatened by the so-called emergence of China?”
Kishore Mahbunbani, Singapore’s former United Nations ambassador, told Mr. Rumsfeld his comments might be interpreted to mean Washington is turning its attention from fighting terrorism. Some might even suspect the U.S. would like to destabilize Beijing, he said.
“The implication that freedom means destabilization, I think, it is not correct,” Mr. Rumsfeld responded.
The Bush administration’s image in East Asia has see-sawed in recent years. Many Asian governments opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and what they view as Washington’s myopic focus on terrorism. There also are reservations in Asia about the Bush administration’s handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Still, the U.S.’s rapid response to December’s earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal areas of South and Southeast Asia earned Washington gratitude and some new respect in the region. Its ability to quickly deploy vast naval and air forces contrasted sharply with China’s limited humanitarian response.