By Joel Brinkley

A little-noticed disclosure resulting from the American military assault on Osama bin Laden's home in Pakistan ought to be throwing a bright spotlight on a serious dilemma for the United States.

Before they left, Navy Seals blew up the stealth helicopter that crashed just outside bin Laden's house. But the tail section remained intact, studded with design elements of its stealth technology, something no other nation has.

Well, fairly quickly Washington learned that Pakistan seemed ready to give the tail section to the Chinese military. That didn't happen; the United States asked to take it back, and Pakistan complied. But this "sensitive issue," as the U.S. military put it, was a strong demonstration of Washington's growing concern about China's aggressive military buildup, being carried out with "secrecy and deception," the Pentagon says.

In a news release, the United States Pacific Command complains that "a core tension in the U.S.-China military relationship is U.S. frustration over China's unwillingness to reveal more about its military capability, its budget and its strategy. When senior Pentagon officials visit China, they get a relatively superficial look at military capabilities, and some have questioned whether U.S. openness toward the Chinese makes strategic sense." Good question.

A few weeks, ago, Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the House subcommittee on military readiness, wrote an angry letter to the Pentagon, demanding that it hurry up and produce its annual report on China's military, due each year by March 1, because "China has made considerable advancements in military capability" which have "enormous implications for U.S. military planning."

And when Gen. Chen Bingde, the Chinese military chief of staff, visited Washington last month, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, angrily objected.

"The Chinese military openly regards the United States as an enemy," she practically shouted. "There can be no doubt that every scrap of information this expert delegation collects will be used against us."

All the while, military experts are loudly complaining that China is now acquiring its first aircraft carrier and is about to deploy anti-ship ballistic missiles -- "carrier killers," in common military parlance. Prohibited by arms-control treaties, the U.S. has never built one.

With all of that, it sounds like these officials fear a war.

Some countervailing evidence suggests otherwise. Each year, the United States spends nearly 10 times more on its military than China. Its navy is four times larger and has nearly 4,000 aircraft, while the Chinese navy has a few hundred airplanes, all based on land.

But all that is beside the point, argues Daniel Blumenthal, a former senior Pentagon official now with the American Enterprise Institute. "It's not the right analytical tool," he told me. If you examine China's military buildup, he said, "it's directly meant to destabilize our own military." As an example, no regional power has aircraft carriers those "carrier killer" missiles could target -- except the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

And there's the dilemma. Chen's visit last month was the first of its sort since China suspended military cooperation with the U.S. after Washington announced new arms sales to Taiwan in January 2010. Washington endlessly complains about China's penchant for secrecy and stealth -- while also continually urging closer military ties with China, to avert "the potential for miscalculation and inadvertence," as Kurt Campbell, the senior State Department official for East Asia, put it.

Standing next to Chen at the Pentagon last month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned, "we cannot wait until we are in a crisis to understand each other."

While the U.S. wants to avert an unnecessary conflict, too many people in Washington also fear that China agrees to military exchanges only for its own perfidious reasons: spying and stealing technology -- just as they wanted to get ahold of that helicopter tail section in Pakistan.

"There's been a sea change in attitude in Washington," Blumenthal said. "The Chinese are opaque about what they are doing." Nonetheless, the U.S. does know, for example, that China has "the most aggressive missile development program in the world."

Even without armed conflict, China is already assaulting us. That cyber attack revealed last week against the Gmail accounts of senior American officials and Chinese dissidents is just the latest example.

Last month, American and Chinese military bands did manage to put on successful joint concerts in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. This time, no one complained.

Given all that has happened, it seems, that's about as far as we can trust the Chinese.


Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of "Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a troubled Land."


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