US, China at Odds over Their Roles in Asia US Plan for a Missile-Defense System Heightens Battle over Regionalinfluence

Article excerpt

Amid a growing consensus over the threats to Asian stability from China's military modernization, a vital debate is emerging over plans for a missile-defense system to protect American allies and forces in the region.

By far the most sensitive issue for debate - and one that carries the greatest risk of inciting a US-China conflict - is whether the United States should include Taiwan under a missile-defense umbrella. China, determined to reunify with the island it considers a renegade province, bitterly opposes such a US move.

Broadly framing the debate are competing Chinese and American visions of their strategic roles in Asia. Most immediately, China's military buildup is aimed at securing its sovereignty claims in a distinct zone of influence that includes Taiwan and the South China Sea. In the long run, however, it is designed to establish China as the Asian superpower - at the expense of the United States, experts say. "{Beijing's} long-term goal is to become the preeminent power in Asia, which would include excluding the United States as a major regional presence," says Alex Lennon, deputy director of studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. For its part, the United States seeks to maintain China as simply one of several important players in the region. Washington wants to bolster the regional military alliances it considers central both to Asian stability and US national interests. Beijing, however, opposes "the strengthening of military alliances," linking them in a defense white paper last year to "factors of instability" in international security. Foreign-policy hurdle Such conflicting strategies are a major hurdle to smooth US-China relations, US officials say. "As the United States, China, and others in the region work to build ... {a} security architecture, the greatest challenge will be to manage the gap that still exists in strategic visions," according to a Pentagon paper on East Asian security issued in November. Beijing's military modernization - and especially the buildup and development of ballistic and cruise missiles able to strike Taiwan - has recently brought this conflict over strategic visions into sharp relief. Experts agree that China is engaged in a long-term effort to upgrade the quality and numbers of its ballistic and cruise missiles, partly in an effort to intimidate pro-independence forces on the island of Taiwan. Last week, a Pentagon report to Congress revealed that China's missiles will give Beijing an "overwhelming advantage" over Taiwan by the year 2005. …


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