With new trade tensions emerging almost every day in the U.S.-China relationship, the Pentagon's recent annual report on the Chinese military was widely expected to add fuel to the fire. Popular analyses played on these expectations, portraying the report as more alarmist than in the past, especially in regard to China's regional ambitions, and picking up on individual sentences in the report. For instance, much play was made of the U.S. Defense Department's warning that new capabilities that could, "provide China with a force capable of prosecuting a range of military operations in Asia -- well beyond Taiwan -- potentially posing a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region."
Much has also been made of the behind-the-scenes fighting over the content and tone of the report between the Pentagon, the U.S. State Department, and the National Security Council and the repeated delays in releasing it. Yet a careful reading of the report suggests that the Bush administration is replacing an often piecemeal response to the rise of China with a more coherent strategy of seeking to resolve issues through a broader dialogue.
So too does U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's current trip to China to initiate a new senior dialogue on global issues. Indeed, speaking in Hong Kong before his visit to Beijing began Monday, Mr. Zoellick described its purpose as being not only to "work cooperatively" on areas of common interest, "but also, where we have differences, how best to try to manage them." The talks are the first in a regular series of high-level contacts, with Beijing and Washington taking turns as hosts.
For its part, the Pentagon report is clear eyed about the threat of Chinese military modernization. A comprehensive and sustained modernization program includes the acquisition of new weapons systems, the development of new doctrines of warfare, and improvements in training standards. Taiwan remains a focal point of military development and Beijing is acquiring weapons (mainly from Russia) designed to coerce Taipei's choices about its political future. Weapons like the Sovremenny class destroyer and Kilo-class submarine, as well as short range missiles targeted against a U.S. aircraft carrier group, could seriously complicate a U.S. response to a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
These military capabilities are fungible and, as the report noted, could eventually be targeted at other countries in the region. But such conclusions are nothing new -- others have long pointed out Beijing is developing the ability to project its power well beyond Taiwan. This is not particularly surprising or unexpected. For instance, a 2003 Council on Foreign Relations task force predicted that China would become the predominant military power in East Asia within the next two decades.
What is far more notable about the Pentagon report is its evenhanded tone. On the capabilities side, its balances development trends with short-term limitations on Beijing's use of military assets. Continued problems in coordinating joint operations, a lack of critical command and control and surveillance capabilities, and dependence on foreign suppliers for key weapons technologies all reduce China's ability to project power beyond its periphery. Unlike in previous years, the report makes limited use of less reliable sources -- such as Hong Kong newspapers or the writings of one or two colonels -- to infer the civilian leadership's long-term strategic intentions. There is no speculation that Beijing views the U.S. as its primary competitor.
Echoing comments that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made in Beijing last month, the Pentagon notes that the U.S. "welcomes the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China, one that becomes integrated as a constructive member of the international community." Mr. Zoellick's trip is a part of an increasingly administration-wide effort to put this goal into practice.
In effect the Pentagon report and Mr. Zoellick's trip suggest that the U.S. will try and influence China rather than simply defend against it. As the report clearly states, the future -- and Chinese intentions -- are uncertain. Beijing may choose to be a more constructive member of the international community or it may decide on a more assertive and nationalistic foreign policy. An economic downturn in China or social disruption could produce outcomes no one expects. But for now and in the face of uncertainty, the priority is to try to create an environment in which China has an interest in cooperating with the U.S.
Mr. Segal is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.