June 4, 2005
New York Times
SINGAPORE, Saturday, June 4 - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in an unusually blunt public critique of China, said Saturday that Beijing's military spending threatened the delicate security balance in Asia and called for an emphasis instead on political freedom and open markets.
In a keynote address at an Asian security conference here, Mr. Rumsfeld argued that China's investment in missiles and up-to-date military technology posed a risk not only to Taiwan and to American interests, but also to nations across Asia that view themselves as China's trading partners, not rivals.
He said no "candid discussion of China" could neglect to address these military concerns directly, and criticized China for not admitting the full extent of what he described as its worrisome military expansion.
"Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: why this growing investment?" Mr. Rumsfeld asked.
His remarks come as Washington's stance regarding Beijing appears to be growing more critical. The United States has accused China of manipulating the value of its currency, for example, in order to increase exports, and of exerting heavy-handed pressure on Taiwan.
A joint warning from the American and Japanese defense and foreign ministers has rankled Chinese leaders, as has the Bush administration's insistence that Europe must not ease curbs on arms sales to China.
The administration has also been increasingly disappointed by China's apparent reluctance to press North Korea to resume talks on its nuclear weapons programs, as Mr. Rumsfeld again urged China to do.
Perhaps because of his emphasis on military developments, as well as trade and democracy, Mr. Rumsfeld's remarks, while measured, were more critical in tone than those heard in recent months from other administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited China in March. Before the election last year, she and her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, both said relations were better than they had been in years.
Mr. Rumsfeld's comments on China also stood in contrast to those on another power in Asia: India. On the flight to Singapore, he said ties with India would strengthen while those with China could fray if Beijing did not open up society more.
Mr. Rumsfeld previewed findings of the Pentagon's annual report to Congress on the Chinese military, saying: "China's defense expenditures are much higher than Chinese officials have publicly admitted. It is estimated that China's is the third-largest military budget in the world, and now the largest in Asia."
Warnings about China's military modernization have been issued before, but Mr. Rumsfeld's remarks were notable because they came at an Asian security conference attended by defense ministers and military specialists from across Asia and the Pacific Rim.
"The world would welcome a China committed to peaceful solutions and whose industrious and well-educated people contribute to international peace and prosperity," Mr. Rumsfeld said. But that requires China to match its economic liberalizations with domestic political freedoms, he said, which in turn would bring clear benefits to Beijing because "China would appear more as a friend and a welcome partner."
"China has fundamental decisions to make about its goals and its future," he said. "Ultimately, China will need to embrace some form of open, representative government if it is to fully achieve the benefits to which its people aspire."
That echoed the Bush administration's broad theme of encouraging democracy around the world, a message that Mr. Bush himself had carried to China when he visited there in February 2002, in a speech broadcast on state television.
Mr. Rumsfeld, for his part, has long taken a tough stance on China.
He ordered American military relations with China to be frozen shortly after he became defense secretary in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet shadowing an American Navy surveillance aircraft in international airspace collided with the plane, forcing it to land on Chinese territory. The crew members were held as virtual hostages for 11 days.
But the American Navy's port calls have slowly resumed over recent months, and Mr. Rumsfeld now says he hopes to pay an official visit to China before the end of the year.
In recent weeks, American officials have compiled reports detailing how China has carefully analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the United States military to focus its growing spending on weapons systems that could exploit perceived American weaknesses in case the United States ever responds to fighting in Taiwan.
These military and intelligence officials say China has purchased or built enough amphibious assault ships, submarines, fighter jets and short-range missiles that pose an immediate threat to Taiwan and to any American force that might come to Taiwan's aid.
Asked about the speech before Mr. Rumsfeld delivered it, Scott McClellan, press secretary for President Bush, declined to discuss any change in tone in the way that the administration is talking about China. Referring to Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. McClellan added: "He speaks for the administration as secretary of defense. I haven't seen his remarks."
How to assess the Chinese military buildup has been the source of some debate within the administration. Mr. Rumsfeld's speech here, to a forum held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was circulated among senior administration officials, including Ms. Rice, before delivery, one Pentagon official said.
The Pentagon's report to Congress on China is two months late, and one administration official said drafts of the document have been written, circulated and re-written as officials try to strike the right balance between warnings to Beijing and praise of its help on North Korea and its openness to investment.
In a clear indication of the complicated nature of the relationship, Mr. Rumsfeld stressed the critically important role that China plays, along with the United States and three other nations, in a six-party negotiation aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program. Those talks have been stalled for a year.
"One nation that can make a notable contribution in persuading North Korea to return to the six-party talks is China," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
He was also harshly critical of North Korea, which he labeled an impoverished, Stalinist regime, but he did not offer new policy pronouncements. Before his arrival here, Mr. Rumsfeld did note that the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea was under review.
"Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions threaten the security and stability of the region, and indeed the world," he said.
"President Bush and the other four leaders have urged the regime to return to the six-party talks. The United States also urges the regime to embrace the openness and freedom that have helped so many of its neighbors thrive."
Mr. Rumsfeld described the American military in the region as poised to battle terrorism and the proliferation of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, but he also highlighted the emergency assistance given by American armed services after the tsunami in December killed more than 170,000 people across Southeast Asia.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington for this article.