WASHINGTON – A subtext of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House is the growing U.S.-China military competition. As China's defense spending surges, the Pentagon is pursuing a strategy of strengthening its forces in the Asia-Pacific region as a hedge against the potential emergence of a hostile China.
The Navy is putting a larger proportion of its submarine fleet in the Pacific, plans to add one aircraft carrier battle group in that region and is outfitting strategic missile submarines with non-nuclear cruise missiles.
The Air Force has been improving its ability to deploy B-2 stealth bombers from Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific; the Marines are shifting some troops to Guam; the Army has talked of moving the headquarters of its I Corps, which focuses on potential conflicts in the Pacific, from Fort Lewis, Wash., to Japan.
The Pentagon has made no secret of its increasing focus on China as a potential threat to stability in Asia and the Pacific, where U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea have been key underpinnings of the region's economic growth. At the same time the U.S. has been careful not to describe the Chinese as an adversary.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chief of naval operations, said in a radio interview this week that China's military buildup is a serious concern.
"They've got an economy which is booming," he said. "They've also invested heavily on the military side, so we're watching both." He said the United States hopes that China's goal is to promote world peace and prosperity.
"On the other hand, if there are other motivations there, that certainly would be a concern," Mullen added.
The Washington Times reported Thursday that its three-month investigation of the U.S. military buildup in Asia showed that it is part of a covert strategy in which the U.S. military position in that region is being strengthened in ways designed to avoid provoking the Chinese and to dissuade them from becoming a hostile power.
Pentagon officials have said often in public statements that China could reduce suspicions about the aim of its defense buildup if it would be more open about specifics such as the makeup of its defense budget and its nuclear forces.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made that point when he visited Beijing in October.
China "is expanding its missile forces and enabling those forces to reach many areas of the world well beyond the Pacific region," Rumsfeld said. "Those advances in China's strategic strike capacity raise questions, particularly when there's an imperfect understanding of such developments on the part of others."
In his remarks at a White House welcoming ceremony for Hu on Thursday, President Bush said the U.S. "welcomes the emergence of a China that is peaceful and prosperous." He did not mention China's arms buildup, which includes a growing arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles within range of Taiwan.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be Chinese territory and has threatened to take it by force if necessary.
"We will do our utmost with all sincerity to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification" with Taiwan, Hu said in a joint appearance with Bush. "This being said, we will by no means allow Taiwan independence."
The Bush-Hu meeting focused mainly on economic and trade issues rather than military matters, officials said.