WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is hoping China will reveal more about a massive military that the Bush administration sees as a potential near-term threat to U.S. interests in Asia and a possible global rival in the future.
Rumsfeld will depart Monday on his first trip to China as defense secretary, marking a new opening to the country. China’s military, with about 2.5 million people, is the largest in the world, and Rumsfeld wants Beijing to detail more about the scope of its budget and the intentions of its leaders.
As a nod to the Americans, China agreed to allow Rumsfeld to visit 2nd Artillery Corps headquarters at Qinghe, which runs its strategic missile forces. Rumsfeld would be the first U.S. official ever to see the complex, according to Pentagon officials speaking on condition of anonymity who briefed reporters on the trip.
The Chinese, however, denied Rumsfeld’s request to visit the Western Hills command center, a secret underground facility that serves as a national military command post. No foreigner is believed to have been inside Western Hills, although Chinese officials have visited the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld is scheduled to meet with President Hu Jintao, who also is chairman of the Central Military Commission, which runs the military, and other senior officials.
Rumsfeld will leave Washington with little expectation of a major breakthrough in the topsy-turvy relationship with China, according to aides. But many see his visit as bringing the United States and China full-circle from the most recent low point in relations: the April 2001 collision of a Chinese jet and a U.S. Navy spy plane.
That incident infuriated Rumsfeld, who responded by breaking off U.S. military contacts with China for a time. He has remained publicly skeptical of China’s intentions, saying at an Asia conference last June that by Pentagon calculations China’s defense budget was the third largest in the world, behind the United States and Russia.
“Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?” Rumsfeld said. He was alluding to China’s expanding missile forces, which pose a threat not only to Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia but potentially even to the United States.
U.S. officials were taken aback when a Chinese general said last July that Beijing might respond with nuclear weapons if the United States were to attack China in a conflict over Taiwan. Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a dean at China’s National Defense University, said this was his personal view and was not official government policy.
Rumsfeld’s visit, only the third by a U.S. defense secretary in the past decade and the first since 2000, is intended in part as a precursor to a trip that President Bush plans for November.
Rumsfeld’s visit is “long overdue, very welcome, and hopefully will help to restore some trust and momentum to the U.S.-China military and strategic relationship,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University.