Commentary

How China Can Reassure Neighbors, U.S.

China recently announced a 14.7 percent increase in its military budget for the coming year, the latest in a series of annual double-digit hikes in spending.

Yet Beijing insists that it has no aggressive intentions, and PRC leaders have repeatedly proclaimed China’s “peaceful rise” to great power status in East Asia.

The United States and China’s neighbors in the region remain unconvinced. The Pentagon’s recent Quadrennial Defense Review took the unusual step of explicitly naming China as the nation that is most capable of ultimately posing a security challenge to the United States.

Japan is increasingly nervous about the PRC’s intentions and seeks to cement its alliance with the United States. Taiwan points to China’s military buildup, especially the continued deployment of missiles, and fears that Beijing may someday contemplate using coercion to compel the island to reunify with the mainland.

Chinese leaders need to understand that proclamations of peaceful intentions are not enough. China has both the need and the opportunity to take two concrete steps that would help reassure both the United States and the PRC’s neighbors in East Asia.

1) Come clean on the real level of military spending. Critics understandably consider the size of the increase in the new budget troubling. But another point should have received more attention.

The new “official” defense budget of $35 billion is pure fiction. The Pentagon’s high-end estimate of $90 billion is probably excessive, but most independent experts believe that China’s real level of military spending is somewhere between $50 billion and $65 billion. Much of the spending is either concealed in other budget categories or is off budget entirely.

Beijing needs to stop presenting a military budget that is so obviously phony. It breeds suspicion. Not only the United States but China’s neighbors have reason to wonder what the PRC is hiding — and why.

Not only should Beijing be forthright about the actual level of spending contemplated in its new budget, but it should restate the figures in previous budgets for at least the past five years. That is what corporations seeking to regain the public’s trust and confidence must do if they have misstated revenues and earnings because of dubious accounting methods. We should expect no less of a nation that says it desires the world’s trust and confidence.

2) Freeze the deployment of missiles across from Taiwan. Beijing has already deployed approximately 800 missiles and continues to add several dozen each year. Indeed, the pace of deployment appears to be accelerating, not diminishing. Understandably, the Taiwanese people regard those missiles as profoundly threatening.

With such a large number of missiles already in place, the PRC gains little additional military clout by adding to the total. President Hu Jintao should immediately announce a freeze on deployments as a goodwill gesture to Taiwan and the East Asian community generally.

PRC officials are fond of quoting the communique signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 in which the United States pledged to reduce and eventually eliminate arms sales to Taiwan. They conveniently ignore the context of that pledge — namely that China was committed to solve the Taiwan issue by peaceful means.

An ongoing, massive buildup of missiles is inconsistent with that commitment. If Beijing wants the United States to hold off on future arms sales to Taipei, the fastest way to achieve that goal is to end the missile deployments. Withdrawing some of the missiles would be the most constructive and conciliatory step, but at the very least, a freeze is in order.

Those two actions would back up Beijing’s soothing words with meaningful substance. America and the nations of East Asia are waiting to see if the statements about the PRC’s peaceful rise are believable or are just so much cynical propaganda.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, is the author of seven books and the editor of 10 books on international affairs.