The rapid growth of China's economic power around the world is, by now, an old story. What other countries are watching with less certainty, and perhaps more interest, is the development of the two-and-one-half million member Chinese military - the largest armed force in the world. This issue was examined at a recent panel discussion in Washington sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Defense University and the Library of Congress.
A panel of scholars in the United States agreed that the development of the Chinese military will have implications for Asia and the United States.
These conclusions came a few weeks after China issued a biennial national defense white
paper at the end of December. The document outlined China's views on key security and military issues. At the top of agenda is Taiwan, which Beijing views as the most pressing threat to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Chinese Nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949, after losing a civil war to the Communists. Beijing claims the island as part of its territory, and has threatened to use force if it declares independence.
One panelist, National Defense University professor Bernard Cole, said he believes Chinese military planners discuss Taiwan scenarios with an eye to trying to minimize the impact of any possible intervention from the United States.
"They [Chinese planners] are not concerned so much with trying to counter the Taiwan navy, but rather, trying either to counter the U.S. Navy or to apply military pressure against Taiwan in such a fashion that the United States would not have the opportunity to intervene successfully," he said.
Professor Cole said there are also several other territorial conflicts that have implications for China's neighbors.
"China also has sovereignty disputes with Japan over its maritime border over the Senkaku Islands, or the Diaoyutai," he added. "It has border disputes over the South China Sea with Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. There is a dispute still being resolved over the maritime border with Vietnam. And, I mentioned earlier the disputes over the various fisheries areas, with almost all the nations of East Asia."
Another National Defense University professor, Phillip Saunders, said with the exception of Taiwan, China has been "behaving responsibly" in terms of not making military threats against other countries in the region.
"I think it is pretty clear that China's foreign policy behavior today is much better than it was in most areas a decade ago. And, so, that is the good news. That is pretty good news. Underpinning that, however, are military capabilities that are improving over time, a host of sovereignty issues that Dr. Cole referred to, the Taiwan issue, which is one where there is a potential for force to be used, and China's rising power and rising influence within the region," said Professor Saunders.
But Professor Saunders added that he has no concrete predictions as to how China would act in the future.
"Do you get the nice China, today, albeit bigger and more powerful? Or do you get some different kind of behavior, once China's power increases? And that is the real question, as you think about China in security terms. How will a much stronger China behave? Will it be a responsible great power or not? That is the real question, and if you are a country that is in Asia, that is something to think about. But it is also something to prepare for, in case the answer turns out that a strong China is not going to behave as nicely or benignly as you had hoped," he said.
The State Department's Susan Puska, who emphasized that her comments do not represent the views of the U.S. government, said she believes Asian countries understand that China is the largest country in the region.
"They [Asian countries] have a much more nuanced and sophisticated approach to China," said Ms. Puska. "They use the United States maybe to counter-balance it [China] sometimes. But I think this mix of threat and opportunity, it is a reality. It is a reality for the United States, as well."
Ms. Puska said the United States should not feel threatened by China's military modernization, but at the same time, should not ignore it.
"I think we cannot neglect it [China], as I indicated," she said. "Certainly, the United States cannot neglect the region or allow ourselves to get distracted. I think we need to stay close to China and work with them, where we can."
Ms. Puska said China will be carefully watching to see how U.S. military restructuring in Asia affects the region, and whether a decrease in the number of U.S. troops there reflects Washington's declining interest.
In the meantime, she added that China has used economics to effectively promote its national interests in Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the South Pacific. She feels there also will be future opportunities for China to help with post-tsunami recovery efforts in South Asia, which could further Beijing's interests there - possibly, she said, at U.S. expense.