Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) – An annual CIA global intelligence assessment has for the first time since 9/11 characterized China’s military buildup as a threat to the United States.
"Improved Chinese capabilities threaten U.S. forces in the region," CIA director Porter Goss told a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday.
"Beijing’s military modernization and military buildup could tilt the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait," he said.
The CIA chief, who took office last September, painted a picture of an assertive and self-assured China.
"China is increasingly confident and active on the international stage, trying to ensure that it has a voice on international issues and secures access to natural resources and to counter what it sees as United States’ efforts to contain or encircle it."
Goss’s assessment comes at a time the European Union is moving to lift a 16-year-old embargo on arms sales to China, despite Pentagon concerns that U.S. forces could in any future conflict over Taiwan face Chinese troops armed with advanced European weaponry.
The U.S. is committed to help Taiwan defend itself. Beijing regards the island as a rebel province and has vowed to use force if necessary to prevent it from formalizing its de facto independence.
"If Beijing decides that Taiwan is taking steps toward permanent separation that exceeds Beijing’s tolerance, we assess China is prepared to respond with varying levels of force," Goss told the committee.
He said China last year increased the number of ballistic missiles facing Taiwan and "continues to develop more robust, survivable nuclear-armed missiles as well as conventional capabilities for use in a regional conflict."
Each February, the CIA head briefs the committee on worldwide security challenges and threats.
Transcripts of testimony presented in 2002, 2003 and 2004 indicate an assessment of China that included positive aspects of U.S.-China cooperation in the post-9/11 era.
Although referring to concerns about military buildup, portions relating to China did not use the words "threat" or "threaten," settling instead for "risk" and "challenge."
Last year, then-CIA director George Tenet cited Beijing’s cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terrorism and attempts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff.
In the previous two years, too, Tenet referred to U.S.-China cooperation, saying in 2003 Beijing was emphasizing a "constructive relationship" and "actively seeking a degree of engagement in areas of mutual interest," and in 2002 referring to "our shared fight against terrorism."
By contrast, Goss’s testimony this week omitted any mention of bilateral cooperation, either in counter-terror efforts or on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Security analysts estimate that China’s true defense budget — as opposed to its declared military spending — has reached $80 billion, the third-highest in the world after the U.S. and Russia.
Russia and other former Soviet states supply most of China’s weapons, but Beijing has been pressing the EU to end its ban on arms sales, imposed after the 1989 crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. The U.S., Taiwan and key U.S. ally Japan are strongly opposed to any lifting of the embargo.
In a defense doctrine last December, the Japanese government for the first time said China and its military buildup posed a regional risk.
"It is necessary to watch China’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the modernization of its navy and air force, and its attempts to expand marine activities," the document said.
The Japanese shift drew a sharp response from Beijing, which called the decision to describe China as a regional risk "totally groundless and extremely irresponsible."
Relations between Japan and China have cooled in recent years, despite strong trade links.
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