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Why Rumsfeld is visiting a strengthening China

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is embarking on his first visit to Beijing in an effort to increase dialogue and improve relations between China and the United States. NBC News' Michael Borja reports from Beijing on the questions over China's increasing military build-up.
Chinese army personnel engage in a military exercise in the northern part of the country in late September. Beijing has been modernizing its armed forces, to the alarm of many in the American government.Li Gang / Xinhua via AP file
/ Source: NBC News

BEIJING — After resisting for many years, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is embarking on his first visit to Beijing in an effort to increase dialogue and improve relations between China and the United States.

Although China and the United States are getting cozier economically, political relations between the United States and China have been increasingly tense due to China's ongoing military modernization, growing competition for oil and the United States' continuing support for Taiwan.

In June, Rumsfeld raised questions over China’s increased military build-up during his visit to the Asia Security Conference in Singapore. "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment?" he asked. "Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?”

His visit to the Chinese capital, the start of an eight-day trip that will also include stops in South Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania, appears designed to get some answers to the strategic issues raised in Singapore.

Questions over build-up
Rumsfeld is not the first to question whether China is pursuing an expansionist policy and if China is a threat to stability in Asia and the United States.

China currently has a dispute with Japan over drilling rights in the Senkaku Islands and is engaged in a territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands with several other Asian neighbors.

In its military buildup, China has purchased billions of dollars worth of advanced Russian weaponry, including Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, Sovremenny-class destroyers, advanced missiles and Su-27 fighter jets.  

According to media reports, the new submarines are equipped with SS-N-27 Sizzler anti-ship missiles, which are capable of traveling over two times the speed of sound and pose a serious threat to U.S. naval forces in the Pacific. China has also purchased hundreds of Russian Su-27 fighter jets, ranked as among the best in the world.

"Rummy is the designated hitter on the relentless Chinese military buildup," says John Pike, a defense expert and head of, a think tank in Alexandria, Va. "His fundamental premise is to discourage the Chinese from contemplating becoming a military competitor with America."

Taiwan-China back and forth
At the center of China-U.S. tensions is Taiwan. Tensions between the island nation and China increased after the 2000 election of Chen Shui-Bian's nationalistic party in Taiwan and its increasingly strong opposition to the "One China" policy. China has threatened to invade Taiwan if it declares independence.

Some anxieties have arisen that if the U.S. comes to the defense of Taiwan, it may invite a strike on the U.S. mainland by Chinese nuclear forces. Pike said that China's military is still much weaker than that of the U.S., but it still raises the possibility that they could win a conflict over Taiwan further down the road.

China's Second Artillery unit has been increasing its inventory of short-range and medium-range missiles to attack Taiwan and U.S. Pacific forces. It also maintains a small inventory of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting the United States.

U.S. defense analysts are not sure of China's true intentions because of the lack of transparency.  Meanwhile, many Chinese officials are confused about American intentions because the U.S. is increasing its economic ties with China while at the same time selling modern armaments to Taiwan, which, because of the "One China" policy, it sees as interference in its domestic affairs.

Lingering tensions and suspicions
The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 2000 Balkans crisis and the American EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001 did little to help relations between the two nations. China also is disturbed by the growing U.S. presence in Central Asia and Southeast Asia that has accompanied the war on terrorism.

Chinese officials are eager to get a closer look at Donald Rumsfeld, explained Dr. Shiming Fan, a professor specializing in Sino-American relations at Peking University's School of International Studies.

"Many in the Chinese government are happy to see Rumsfeld because the Pentagon is regarded as one of the harshest critics of China within the U.S. government," he said. In addition, Fan said, the Chinese see it as a chance to show Rumsfeld its true intentions, such as its commitment to a "Peaceful Rise" policy.  

Fan said the United States is wrong to see China as a threat, saying his country prefers an engagement policy with the United States for the sake of economic growth.

He said it was a mistake to see China's increasing military capabilities as ominous. "Just because a strong man approaches you, doesn't mean he's going to threaten you… Osama bin Laden has much less technology than China, and he is more of a threat to the United States than China," said Fan.

Oil issues may be at root
Another possible storm cloud is growing competition over energy resources.

While defense analyst Pike believes that China prefers an engagement policy, "One cannot exclude the possibility that oil politics will change that approach."

And in a report to Congress released in July 2005 entitled “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005," Pentagon analysts wrote that China may be increasing the capabilities of its navy in order to secure vital sea routes that are necessary to supply China with the energy it needs to fuel its growing economy.

As of now, China imports 40 percent of its oil, and by 2025, it may import as much as 80 percent. Of that, 80 percent passes through the Straits of Malacca, a narrow passage between Malaysia and Indonesia. If a blockade were to be enforced in the strait, it could have a drastic effect on China's economic security, an issue China’s President Hu Jintao referred to as the "Malacca Dilemma.”

To secure its supply of oil, the defense department’s report postulated that China may pursue a "more activist presence abroad" via a modernized navy, a move some analysts fear this could lead to confrontations.