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CHINA: THE GIANT AWAKENS : Military : Wary Neighbors Watch China Arm : Asians wonder about Beijing's strategic intentions. Some fear instability if it seeks to convert growing economic clout into political hegemony.


TOKYO — Is the wave of the future in Asia a Chinese military colossus? A Japan so overwhelmed by its populous neighbor that it would be a tool in China's hands?

These are questions that Asians are beginning to ponder as China moves toward a new status as an economic superpower. And the possible answers pose dramatically opposing alternatives for Asia's future.

A China concentrating on economic development would continue to provide, as it already has, a significant spur to Asian growth. But a China intent on flexing its muscles could destabilize the entire region, spurring an unproductive arms race. Indeed, a "mini-race" already has started.

So great is China's economic surge that leaders like Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong are now predicting that China could overtake the United States as the world's largest economy in 20 to 30 years. "China's rise as an economic power cannot be stopped," Goh says.

And "with economic strength comes political clout," Goh said here last month. Increasingly, China "will have the means to try to reshape any international environment that it regards as threatening its basic interests," he said.

Asians, Goh added, "are fearful of China's growing economic power and potential to become a military threat."

"Even now, Japan's population is (about) one-tenth of China's," worries Seiki Nishihiro, a former Japanese vice minister of defense. "In 50 years, it will amount to only 5% of China's. . . . If Japan loses its power base--its alliance with the United States--Japan eventually would be gobbled up by China. It would be like the three Baltic republics (of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) versus the (former) Soviet Union. China would no longer face any obstacles in forcing its will on Japan."

It is not only economic growth in China that is stirring such fears. In the past few years, after nearly a decade of moderation, Chinese military spending has also started soaring.

Chinese officials insist that Japan's $41.8-billion annual defense outlay dwarfs their own defense budget--officially, $7.4 billion.

However, said retired Maj. Gen. Ikuo Kayahara, chief of Asia and Pacific Region Research at the Japanese government's National Institute for Defense Studies, the Chinese outlay is more than $14.5 billion if items hidden in other parts of the government budget are included. Also, he added, China is able to procure at home at least four times the weapons, goods and services that Japan can buy domestically for each dollar worth of spending.

Further, China is believed to be planning double-digit annual increases in defense spending through the end of the century.

Shocked by the American display of high-tech weaponry in the Persian Gulf War, China has embarked on a program to develop a "high-tech" military, Kayahara said.

Special rapid-deployment forces are being beefed up. A coastal patrol force of ships is being transformed into a blue-water navy. A 1960s-vintage air force is being developed into a long-range striking force.

China is buying new jet planes, tanks, electronic warfare gadgets, telecommunications equipment, missile systems and radar--an estimated $1.8 billion worth of equipment and weapons from Russia alone last year.

Most frightening to its neighbors is China's apparent long-range plan to add aircraft carriers to its navy. Except for the former Soviet Union, India is the only Asian nation that currently possesses carriers.

China's buying spree has been financed in part by its sales of missiles and missile technology to such "pariah states" as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Chinese nuclear technology also may be helping Algeria and Iran build nuclear arsenals of their own, U.S. experts charge.

Just last month, President Clinton declared that Washington "is now examining reports that China has shipped M-11 ballistic missiles to Pakistan." If true, such action would trigger U.S. sanctions, he warned.

Ominously, China also has reasserted its claims to the entire South China Sea--a territory it can now dominate with at least 24 new Sukhoi 27 long-range fighter-bombers it has received from Russia providing cover for naval operations.

Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have also made conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, particularly to the Spratly Islands. There are believed to be rich undersea oil fields in the area, and major shipping lanes for oil from the Middle East to Japan and South Korea pass through the Spratlys.

The dispute over the South China Sea was papered over at a ministerial meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last year. But no solution has emerged. Nor have signs of a coming oil crunch in China diminished; by 1995, it is expected to switch from being a net oil exporter to a net importer.

The Spratlys dispute contains "a better than average chance of at least limited maritime clashes," according to Kenneth J. Conboy, deputy director of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

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