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China Military Buildup Could 'Upend' Asian Security, says US Official

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia, Wallace Gregson (file photo)
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia, Wallace Gregson (file photo)
Al Pessin

A senior U.S. defense department official says China's military buildup could turn the Asian regional security balance upside down, and called on the country's leaders to be clearer about their plans and intentions.  The comments came just four days after the official was part of senior-level U.S.-China defense talks.  

The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia, retired Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, spoke Tuesday at an event sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute.

"It has become increasingly evident that China is pursuing a long-term, comprehensive military buildup that could upend the regional security balance," said Gregson.

Gregson said China's decision to modernize its military is not by itself a problem, even with annual double digit defense spending increases.  But he said the effort to develop such capabilities as anti-ship ballistic missiles, advanced submarines, surface-to-air missiles, anti-satellite weapons and the ability to attack computer networks do cause concerns in the United States and elsewhere.

"The U.S. shares the concern of many in the region that this type of military buildup far exceeds China's defensive needs," he said. "In addition, these kinds of weapons threaten to undermine the basic norms that have bolstered East Asian peace and prosperity, such as open access to sea lanes for commerce and security assistance."

Assistant Secretary Gregson's comments came just four days after senior U.S. and Chinese officials held annual defense talks at the Pentagon.  After those meetings on Friday, the top American official involved, Under Secretary Michele Flournoy, called the talks "candid" and "frank" - words officials usually use to signal disagreement.

She said, and Gregson repeated Tuesday, that the Chinese officials agreed on the need for a more consistent defense relationship, without the kind of "freezes" China has imposed in response to U.S. policies it does not like.  But neither official indicated there was any formal agreement to end such freezes.

The U.S.-China defense relationship is just now coming out of an eight-month freeze China imposed to protest a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.  

Also on Friday, Flournoy said the Chinese military representatives shared "some of their thinking on their strategy and capabilities development."  But Gregson said Tuesday the United States still wants more transparency about how China intends to use its rapidly growing military capability.

"We call upon China to become more transparent regarding its military capabilities, expenditures and intentions," said Gregson. "We are not asking for an unreasonable degree of disclosure, simply enough to allow all parties to avoid miscalculation."

The United States is the preeminent military power in Asia, and officials say it intends to remain so, even as China increases its capabilities.  Still, Gregson said "the United States and China are not inevitably destined for conflict."  He said differences need to be managed, and military cooperation must be deepened on issues where the two countries have a common interest, such as fighting terrorism and piracy, and ensuring open sea lanes.  

Gregson says that means more bi-lateral meetings and military exchanges.  At Friday's talks, the two sides agreed on a series of such activities during the coming year, starting with a visit to China by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January.

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