BEIJING — Speaking to the next generation of China's Communist Party leaders, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today urged the country to become more politically open and challenged it to play a larger role in tackling the world's most significant problems.
China's long-term economic growth, he warned, could depend on the nation's willingness to accept greater democracy and do more to help combat terrorism, nuclear proliferation, disease and other threats. He added that several of China's current policies, such as moving quickly to modernize its arsenal, have alarmed some of the most powerful nations.
"As you know, it raises some questions about whether China will make the right choices -- choices that will serve the world's interests in regional peace and stability," Rumsfeld said before fielding questions from a group of about 30 students and professors at Beijing's Central Party School. "China's future prosperity, and to some degree the future of other nations' attitudes [about China], may well depend on internal political events here."
He added, "Every society ... has to be vigilant against another type of Great Wall that can be a burden on man's talents and is born from a fear of them -- a wall that limits speech, information or choices."
Chinese officials allowed the media to hear only one audience question. A professor said he saw hopeful signs in the U.S.-China relationship, yet said the Bush administration also seemed to speak with "different voices."
Rumsfeld replied that it was the Chinese who seemed to be sending conflicting messages, pointing out that greater engagement with the U.S. had been coupled with an attempt by China to exclude the United States from international organizations in the Pacific region.
Rumsfeld's remarks echoed a theme articulated by several Bush administration officials recently: China has an obligation to play by the rules of the largely free-market, democratic international system that has facilitated its rapid economic growth.
The U.S. has criticized China's military expansion. In a July report, the Pentagon said Beijing may be spending $90 billion a year on defense, three times its acknowledged military budget. The document said that China could pose "a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region" and that Beijing's leaders "may be tempted to resort to force or coercion more quickly to press diplomatic advantage, advance security interests, or resolve disputes."
Chinese officials reacted angrily to the report, saying it "ignores the facts" and "rudely interferes in China's internal affairs." They pointed out that the U.S. military budget was the world's biggest, surpassing $400 billion a year, and that tens of thousands of U.S. troops were in Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Afghanistan.
China insisted that it posed no threat to its neighbors and said the report was an attempt to justify weapons sales to Taiwan. The U.S. has pledged to defend the island in the event of a confrontation with Beijing.
The Bush administration's relations with China got off to a rocky start, hitting a nadir in April 2001 after a Chinese military jet collided in midair with a U.S. spy plane. The American aircraft made an emergency landing on Hainan island, and its crew was detained for days.
Rumsfeld froze all U.S. military ties with China after the incident. Low-level military contacts such as visits to naval ships have slowly resumed, and U.S. officials say they are trying to build a more constructive relationship with Beijing.
Speaking to reporters on his plane before landing in Beijing, Rumsfeld said he believed it was in the interest of the U.S. and China to improve their military relationship. "The question," he said, "is if we can find ways to do it that are comfortable from both nations' standpoint."
Rumsfeld said his visit would become "part of a pattern" of top U.S. officials engaging with Chinese leaders on economic, political and military issues. President Bush is scheduled to visit China next month.
Rumsfeld's trip to China is his first as Defense secretary. Beijing has welcomed Rumsfeld's visit, hoping it might soften his suspicion of China.
"I think he should have come a long time ago," said Jia Qingguo, a professor of international studies at Peking University. "I think it's very important for the Pentagon to develop a relationship with the Chinese military, build trust and avoid confrontation."
The Pentagon has long complained that military contacts and exchanges with China are often a one-way street, with the U.S. granting the Chinese access to its bases, military academies and training facilities without receiving much in return.
China's 2.3-million-strong People's Liberation Army, the world's largest military, has a long-standing culture of secrecy. Its main telephone number is unlisted, it has no website, and even basic information is considered a state secret.