By Yuan Peng
Recently the United States has been trying to strategically position China in a variety of ways, with new words and new concepts popping up frequently.
President George W. Bush calls the Sino-US relationship "very complex," while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said China's rise is a "new factor" in 21st century international relations.
Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick included China as a "stakeholder" of the existing international order led by the US.
In the Pentagon's view, China is at a "strategic crossroads," a saying which first appeared in the 2005 China Military Power Report and repeated in the recently released 2006 Quadrennial Defence Review.
However, the new report not only finds China at a "strategic crossroads," but also Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and most of the Middle East and Latin American nations.
Apart from China, Russia and India also made the list. That seems to imply that, aside from "Western democracies" led by the US, the rest of the world is at a "strategic crossroads."
In the eyes of the US, all those countries have indefinite prospects, which worries it and makes it vigilant.
Although the list is long, an observant person would see that China is obviously the one that keeps the Pentagon fidgeting.
For one thing, the report devotes three to four times the space on China as it does on India and Russia, and the most on a single nation.
For another, the wording on China is the sharpest. The US calls India a "key strategic partner" that shares its value system, and Russia is a "country in transition" and does not pose a comprehensive military threat to the US.
But China has "the greatest potential to compete militarily with the US and field disruptive military technologies that could, over time, offset US military advantages absent US counter strategies."
Why this conclusion? As the US military rationalizes, first, China has invested heavily in its military. Second, the outside world has little knowledge of Chinese motivations and decision-making or capabilities supporting its military modernization. Third, Chinese deployment in the Taiwan Straits has put regional military balances at risk.
And perhaps the most crucial point is that China's political democratization and economic liberalization are far from reaching their goals.
Compare this year's report with the previous two versions and one can see the US is increasing its strategic vigilance towards China.
It is also revealing its strategic preparedness from its previously thinly veiled stance. In the 1997 report, China was to be a "potential strategic competitor" with comparable clout, but was grouped with Russia.
The 2001 report mentioned "a military competitor with a formidable resource base" that would emerge in the region, without naming names, but added, "Russia does not pose a large-scale conventional military threat to NATO."
The 2006 report has made an unequivocal statement and also stipulated the hedging strategy that the US should adopt. This is very rare in any of the US' previously issued strategic reports.
The speedup of China's military modernization has its own logic, which is completely reasonable.
It is a necessary step for a major power in a new phase of development, just like the US did at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when it invested heavily in its naval power. It is also an act of preparedness in response to the escalating trends of "Taiwan independence."
At the same time, it reflects a readjustment in military concept and strategic thinking that takes into account new military dynamics in post-Cold War world and regional trends.
China's move is not only honorable, but, in terms of speed or scale, not ahead of regional powers like Japan or India. Its gap with US military technologies is even widening.
To put China at "strategic crossroads" is to use an American point of view and American way of measurements. In actuality, China, from its stated goals of "harmonious society," "harmonious world" and "peaceful growth," is clear about its strategic policy for development.
Its foreign policy of "peace, development and co-operation" and regional policy geared to "maintaining peace and friendship with its neighbors and helping them prosper" are gaining increasing support. Its Taiwan policy of "peaceful reunification" and "one country, two systems" is showing more signs of peace and reconciliation, bringing its relations with the island back to the track of stability.
China's co-operation with the US on a wide range of issues, from anti-terrorism, Korean Peninsula nuclear issues to non-traditional security, demonstrates China's continued rationality, pragmatism and commitment in its "constructive co-operation" with the US.
On the contrary, the US seems to be the one standing at strategic crossroads.
With the 9-11 incident five years behind, the world is mired deeper in terrorism, natural disasters, fatal epidemics and other non-traditional security threats.
As the only superpower, the US should take some of the responsibilities, but its foreign strategies are wavering between full-brunt anti-terrorism and challenges among big powers, between handling traditional and non-traditional threats.
As a result, it has more and more threats, and its line of attack becomes longer, which raises suspicions in many countries.
The 2006 Quadrennial Defence Review lists four big concerns and four big threats, asking for more funds from US Congress and appealing for more confidence and patience from the American public.
As of now, the US has spent as much money on Iraq as it did during the entire Korean War. Its anti-terrorism expenses are approaching that of the entire Viet Nam War.
This report was submitted to the Congress on the same day as Bush's budget report for 2007, which makes its intention for additional funding quite obvious.
It all indicates an anxiety on the part of the US that borders on illusionary. And paradoxically, the anxiety was caused by a state of uncertainty because it finds itself at "crossroads."
The author is vice-director of Institute of American Studies under China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
(China Daily February 8, 2006)