Jarod Hodge  /  AP
The USS Abraham Lincoln, USS Kitty Hawk and USS Ronald Reagan carrier groups steam in formation near Guam Sunday during preparations for Valiant Shield.
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 6/19/2006 6:28:36 PM ET 2006-06-19T22:28:36

BEIJING — As North Korea threatened to launch a long-range ballistic missile , the United States on Monday began its largest military exercise in the Pacific in more than a decade.

The five-day event off the U.S.-owned island of Guam is huge, involving 30 ships — including three aircraft carriers — 22,000 troops and 280 aircraft.

Most significant, though, is the fact that a Chinese delegation will be visiting the U.S. military bases and be onboard U.S. warships for the first time during such exercises.

The invitation to witness the war games, called Valiant Shield, is an attempt to repair military relations that were severely strained after a 2001 incident in which a U.S. Navy spy plane was forced to land in southern China after colliding with a Chinese fighter sent up to intercept it. The capture of the American crew led to a tense standoff that was only eased after 11 days when the U.S. personnel were released and America apologized for the death of the Chinese pilot.

Bridging suspicion
The invitation comes amid ongoing suspicion over China’s growing military capability, with the U.S. continually calling on China to explain its large spike in military spending.

Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, says the invitation also comes with expectations that China will reciprocate and allow U.S. officers to view future Chinese military exercises.

One particular worry, according to the Department of Defense, is Beijing’s cyber-warfare capabilities, which are detailed in the department's annual report to Congress, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” released last month.

“The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has established information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and tactics and measures to protect friendly computer systems and networks,” the report states.

James Mulvenon, a specialist on the Chinese military at the National Defense University in Washington, says China has been strengthening its ability to attack enemy computer systems as part of preparations for potential U.S. involvement in any future clash with Taiwan.

“In the event of a military conflict between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan, the PRC believes that disrupting U.S. computer systems and networks could potentially delay U.S. intervention, and the PLA could then cause pain sufficient enough to force Taipei to surrender before the U.S. has a chance to arrive,” Mulvenon said.

Meanwhile, Professor Chu Shulong of China's Tsinghua University stressed that his country’s concerns over Taiwan are what are motivating China's military development, as opposed to any possible aggression toward the U.S. Taiwan and China are engaged in a complicated war of words in which each claims to represent the true Chinese government.

“China is a developing country in which as it develops, it will strengthen its military for only defensive purposes — mostly to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence, not to target the United States,” added Chu, sometimes a harsh critic of Beijing's military policy.

Dr. Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University of China, says Beijing's foremost concern is economic development and that conflict with the U.S. “will only hinder China’s development in the long run.”

Long-term threat to U.S.?
The U.S., though, argues that the lack of transparency in China’s robust military build-up poses a credible long-term threat to the U.S.

Last month's Pentagon’s report said China’s military budget for 2006 is likely much more than the $35 billion it claims. The Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that China’s military spending will amount to between $70 billion and $105 billion in 2006.

Derek Levine is a researcher in the NBC News Beijing Bureau.

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