This week a Senate subcommittee on foreign relations looked at the challenges facing the United States and the rest of the world as China begins to flex its growing political and economic muscle.  


For more than three decades, the challenge for the U.S. government was China's reluctance to interact with the rest of the world, but now that China has emerged as a political and economic superpower, the challenge is shifting.  


Senator Lisa Murkowski is chairwoman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee.


"It's clear that China is looking to exert its influence in the foreign policy area.  The bottom line is that China has a plan and they're successfully implementing it.  Our question today is, what is the United States plan as it relates to that?  What does China's increasing influence mean for the United States security concerns, and how does that impact our relations with our traditional allies?"


China is now the United States' third-largest trading partner, behind only Canada and Mexico, and accounts for more than 13 percent of all U.S. imports.  It has become one of the world's largest energy consumers. But it is China's growing military presence that's causing the greatest concern among U.S. policy makers.


Donald Rumsfeld, US Defense Secretary
At an Asian defense minister's summit in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was critical of China for expanding its missile forces despite a lack of threats and its lack of political reforms. "Though China's economic growth has kept pace with its military spending, it is to be noted that a growth in political freedom has not yet followed suit."


China's military budget is reported to be the third-largest in the world, but because of Beijing's secrecy, no one really knows how much that is -- raising concerns among members of Congress.


On the other hand, the Bush administration sees China as an important regional player with a key role in ending North Korea's nuclear aspirations.


Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary at the Department of State, says China must use its economic leverage to influence North Korea. "We cannot allow a country like North Korea to retain nuclear weapons, we cannot allow them to have nuclear materials with the potential or possibility that they could be proliferated.  We need to address this problem.  There are a lot of options, the one option we don't have is to walk away.  The Chinese have that message, let's hope the North Koreans do as well."  


Assistant Secretary Hill adds, "China needs to do more to bring North Korea back to the six country negotiations on its nuclear program."


He says that would be another way China can use its political and economic clout to achieve its political ends.  For its part the U.S. must create an open dialogue with China, including discussion on trade barriers, human rights and intellectual property.