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China a Key, Unmentioned Issue of Bush India Trip

An almost unmentioned, but still important, issue in President Bush's trip to India is China. Both the United States and India have interest in participating in China's economic growth, but they both also have concerns about the growth of China's military.

A Defense Department report issued last July says China's military buildup has changed the military balance in Asia, and could present a challenge to the U.S. military position in the region.

Just this week in testimony before a congressional committee, a senior military intelligence official, General Michael Hayden, said China's goal is to become 'a great power.' And the respected Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John Warner, expressed concern that China is building "a military force far beyond what it needs to protect [its] own security interests."

But U.S. officials are reluctant to characterize China as a threat to the United States or U.S. forces in Asia, or even as a potential threat. They say 'threat' involves hostile intent, which China has not demonstrated except for strong statements about Taiwan. And they note that China's ability to project its military power beyond Asia is still limited.

But the July report says one of China's key goals seems to be to project naval power westward, into the key shipping lanes for Middle Eastern oil bound for Chinese ports. At the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the former top State Department official for South Asian affairs, Teresita Schaffer, says that puts India in a key position.

"It is imperative for the United States to broaden its network of serious friendships in Asia," said Schaffer. "Traditionally, we have had a lot of strength in East Asia and a lot of strength in the Middle East, and much thinner relationships in between. And this is a time when the United States is really looking to beef up the area in between, which is primarily India."

But Ambassador Schaffer says balancing China's military growth is not the only motivation for the recent and planned improvements in U.S.-Indian military relations.

"There is a relationship between the rise of China and the emerging U.S.-India relationship, but it is a complicated one," she added. "Saying that the rise of China changes Asian politics so as to make a [U.S.] relationship with India even more important than it already was is true. But there is not any hostility to China that is built into that statement."

The Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Peter Rodman, says China works as a motivation for India, too.

"There is a strategic dimension, regional politics, and that may be impelling India to seek a greater relationship with us," said Rodman. "But we think it is a positive thing."

But in a VOA interview, Assistant Secretary Rodman said the growing U.S.-Indian defense relationship is not aimed specifically at balancing China's increased military capability.

"I would not focus it on any one particular country. I think India sees itself as a major player in the world, on the world stage, and we agree with that assessment," he noted. "And we think India's strength is a positive development. Its economic strength and its security are interests that we feel a stake in. And so there is a convergence of interests, and it's not directed at any other country. We would not describe it that way."

An expert on U.S.-Indian defense relations, Professor Samit Ganguly of Indiana University, says China is a key element of the U.S.-Indian relationship, but he does not expect to hear much about it from New Delhi during President Bush's visit.

"The Indians don't want to talk about it. The Indians simply do not want to unnecessarily and needlessly provoke the Chinese at a time when their relations with China are on the mend," he said. "But there is little question in my mind that in New Delhi there is growing concern about the extent of Chinese economic and military power, and the strategic reach of China well into Southeast Asia and to India's environs."

Professor Ganguly says India's reluctance to discuss China with U.S. officials is not new.

"As Robert Blackwell, the former ambassador to India, said, if you want to empty a drawing room full of Indian strategists just bring up the issue of Indo-American collaboration against a possible Chinese threat," he added.

At the same time, he says many Southeast Asian nations welcome the increased U.S.-India defense relationship as a counter-balance to China's growing power in the region.

But as Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, the situation is complicated.

"India is also improving its relations with China. And their trade has shot up like a rocket," she said. "You have had a much more serious dialogue about their border problems. This is something the U.S. looks on, I think, as a good thing because it is a blow for stability and peace in Asia.".

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Beijing late last year, and U.S. officials say they want to work with Chinese leaders to ensure China's military growth does not present a threat.

For all three countries, it's a balancing act, and it has the additional aspect of Pakistan, which has long-running disputes with India and long-standing defense relationships with China and the United States.

"It is a very, very tough act to pursue," added Professor Samit Ganguly of Indiana University. "And it bears watching to see what the Chinese will say, and do, more importantly, as this Indo-U.S. relationship, particularly in the military arena, becomes more robust and durable."

Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Rodman says the United States has already demonstrated it can have strong military relations with both India and Pakistan. And he believes it can also pursue expanded defense relations with China, as part of a regional strategy focused on stability, security and fighting global terrorism - goals he says all the countries involved share.