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China's Army Looms Over Asia

Regional arms buildup and potential flashpoints prompt China's neighbors to form regional forum

CHINA loves keeping its nervous Asian neighbors off-balance.

At last month's meeting to lay the groundwork for a new Southeast Asian security structure, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen told regional foreign ministers to calm down. China, he said, buys less military hardware than the United States, its growing 3 million-strong armed forces are strictly defensive, and its nuclear program poses no threat.

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``There have been traditional problems between China and her regional neighbors such as territorial disputes, ethnic Chinese, and internal communist rebellions,'' says a senior Chinese policy advisor. ``It is too early to say that China's military strength has already become a real threat to the region....But our regional neighbors feel uneasy about China's arms sales and increase in military spending.''

Such reassurances carry little weight amid the growing uncertainty over security in Asia, and China's increasingly nasty dispute with Vietnam over the Spratly Islands, the region's most worrisome potential flashpoint. The two are at odds over competing oil claims among the South China Sea atolls.

Chinese ships are blockading one of Vietnam's oil-drilling rigs set up in an area China has awarded to Crestone, a US oil company, for exploration. Vietnam has awarded a concession to another US oil company, Mobil, inside waters claimed by China. The oil fields surrounding the Spratlys are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

``This issue will continue to build slowly but steadily,'' says an Asian ambassador here. ``So now is the time for the region to look for ways to defuse it.''

Meeting in Bangkok at the end of July, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) created the ASEAN Regional Forum as a first attempt at averting potential conflicts. As regional peace depends less on US policing than on a power balance among the US, China, Japan, and other Asian countries, the six ASEAN partners - Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Brunei - took a step toward what some Western and Asian analysts say could be the start of a regional security round table.

Yet, while ASEAN talks, regional arms dealing continues. As Southeast Asian economies boomed in recent years, Asia became the world's biggest arms bazaar. The buildup is in part a regional race to ``keep up with the Joneses'' by matching each others' new military hardware. It reflects nervousness over the withdrawal of US troop strength from Asia in the last five years, a reemerging aggressive Japan, and China's burgeoning military and economic clout.

Although China huffs and puffs over warnings about its military clout, Beijing, not without relish, knows it has become the regional bogy. ``The clamor [from China's smaller neighbors] over the China threat is a means to convince the US that its continued presence in Asia is essential to regional security,'' says the Chinese analyst. ``[China's] top leadership and the military are angry about the unjustified blame placed on China for her military buildup because the Chinese Army is far from being modernized.''

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Although China keeps a wary eye on Japan, it knows that too much flaunting of military muscle could stir new ambitions in Tokyo. It also worries about India's recently acquired naval power, although for now the once-bitter enemies have submerged suspicions under a calm sea of border peace.

By building its military strength but publicly reassuring its smaller neighbors, China hopes it can assert itself while keeping its main nemesis, the US, at bay. ``China is very careful in handling bilateral relations with her neighbors in order to foil the US's attempts to isolate China,'' the analyst insists.

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