China's buildup doesn't really look suspicious for a nation encircled by historical adversaries -- Russia, India and Vietnam -- as well as two unstable nuclear powers, Pakistan and North Korea. Or for a country just two generations removed from an invasion by Imperial Japan. After all, we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined, even though our enemies are all half a world away.
Most if not all of China's military efforts would no doubt be going on even if we didn't exist. It is behaving like a normal rising power -- not the sort of ideologically driven, expansionist state represented by the old Soviet Union.
But, of course, even normal rising powers can precipitate conflict with established ones as they demand more respect and a bigger role in the world. Yet so far this one has seemed to make an effort to avoid being disruptive.
Once an avowed enemy of the international order, China has joined the World Trade Organization, sent peacekeeping forces to African countries, cultivated closer ties with Taiwan and tried to help us divert North Korea from the nuclear path. Lately, it's sent ships to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia.
Zhang Xiaoming, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, told me and other visiting journalists, "China wants to be a status quo power, not a revolutionary power." The country's rulers say the same thing. A white paper published last year declared, "China pursues a national defense policy which is purely defensive in nature."
Prudent people will not take such declarations on faith no matter what government makes them. But in this case, there is no visible gap between Beijing's rhetoric and its conduct. So maybe they mean what they say.
For the most part -- not always, but usually -- the Chinese have behaved as though they think a country can best assure its prosperity and security through caution, restraint, multilateral cooperation and a sense of the limits of military might.
No wonder people in Washington are baffled.
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