When Chinese strategists peek out from behind their Great Wall these days, this is what they see: an American-spun web of security relationships from Kosovo to Kazakhstan, Mongolia to Manila, tightening around China's borders.
Chinese strategists have proclaimed for two decades that peace will reign in Asia and economic development would be the priority in Beijing. But prompted by the May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and, before that, U.S. moves to bolster military relations with China's bordering states, the strategists are rethinking their security doctrine in a move that could have significant implications for security in Asia and the Pacific.
Recent polls in the United States, stoked by congressional reports accusing China of nuclear weapons espionage and funneling money into American politics, have placed China at the top of Americans' list of possible enemies.
But China's perspective, fueled by a military eager for more money and hard-line factions angling for power, is just as grim.
An article published in the influential magazine Outlook last month said the United States had only one goal: "the hegemonic domination of the world." Several Chinese generals at army-run strategic research departments are quoted in the June issue of China Review as saying that six U.S.-backed conspiracies resulted in the decision to bomb the Chinese Embassy. The bombing was no accident, the article contends.
NATO's attacks on Yugoslavia have proved particularly useful to China's hard-line military factions because the bombings allowed them to fan Chinese fears that a vast Western alliance might attempt to limit China's power in Tibet, in the restive northwestern province of Xinjiang or in Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province. And the Chinese are galled that Western powers ignored China's demand that NATO stop the bombing before a peace plan was discussed.
China's strategic perceptions are important. Over the last 50 years, China's perceptions -- and misperceptions -- of the international environment have prompted it to make grave decisions. It was partly Mao Zedong's belief that American troops would cross the Yalu River into northeast China that led him to attack U.S. forces in Korea in 1950. It was partly the notion that Taiwan would cower when threatened with missiles that triggered the military's decision to fire several rockets over Taiwanese territory in 1996, bringing the United States and China closer to conflict than at any time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
It was China's perception as well that the United States would slow weapons sales to Taiwan that led Beijing to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to consider joining the Missile Technology Control Regime. But, as Suisheng Zhao, a political scientist at Colby College in Maine, noted recently, these acts did not prevent Washington "from selling F-16 fighters to Taiwan in 1992, forcing inspection of a Chinese freighter suspected of transporting chemical agents to Iran in 1993, and sending aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in 1996."
The military and hard-line factions appear to have succeeded in pushing the government to consider a new, more aggressive foreign policy, which they call China's New Security Concept. Earlier this month, Japanese media reported an unusual upsurge of Chinese naval activity in May -- including more than 10 ships, mainly high-speed destroyers -- inside Japan's economic zone. One Western source said he believed the Chinese military was expressing "its personal opposition to closer U.S.-Japanese defense ties."
A Chinese-run Internet site, meanwhile, reported last week that China was preparing to test its new submarine-launched ballistic missile, with a range of more than 5,000 miles, within a few months.
Chinese media also reported after the attack on the Belgrade embassy that China was speeding up its program to launch a man into space. The Chinese press on May 26 quoted officials as saying the government was hoping for a manned space flight by Oct. 1, the 50th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. Western experts are doubtful.
Over the last few months, China has also forged its closest ties with Russia since the two then-Communist giants split over ideological issues in the early 1960s. A slew of high-level Russian guests have descended on Beijing recently, including Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who laid the groundwork for a year-end Sino-Russian summit.
On May 31, China's top commander, Gen. Zhang Wannian, met with Valiedin Korapierinykof, the deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, and urged his Russian counterpart to help China create a "multipolar" world and establish a "new international political order" -- euphemisms for diminishing American influence.
Finally, a Chinese source said that some military factions are debating the resumption of sales of weapons of mass destruction. China suspended a nuclear weapons proliferation dialogue with the United States after the embassy bombing. China has warned the United States to drop plans to sell air-to-ground antitank weapons to Taiwan to prevent "new damage" to Sino-U.S. relations. The United States plans to sell $23 million worth of Hellfire II missiles to China's rival Taiwan.
Despite these developments, Western experts stress that China is still a weak military force. It is believed to have only 23 nuclear warheads, compared with thousands in the United States. And if the military budget is to be increased substantially, China will have to vastly improve its moribund tax collection apparatus.
The Outlook article said the U.S. plan to "control the world" was based on two prongs -- NATO's eastward expansion and close defense ties with Japan.
To the east, Chinese strategists view the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, which passed in Japan's parliament on May 24, as a plot to contain China because the rules contain language authorizing Japan's Self-Defense Forces to support U.S. forces in areas "surrounding Japan." That vague language has led Chinese strategists to conclude that Japan, with the United States, might be willing to come to Taiwan's aid if China attacks the island. China has said it reserves the right to attack Taiwan if it declares independence.
Strategists here see the decision by the Philippine Senate on May 28 to reopen its territory for joint exercises with U.S. forces as another link in an American chain of military agreements blocking the expansion of China's influence.
To the west, NATO's expansion has alarmed Chinese strategists. Over the past three years, U.S. forces have also held exercises or seminars with the armies of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which border China. In a peacekeeping seminar led by the U.S. Central Command at Florida's MacDill Air Force Base in mid-May, officers from neighboring Mongolia came to observe.
The June issue of China Review, quoting unnamed Chinese generals, said of the U.S. attack on the Belgrade embassy, "The attack. . . has convinced the Chinese military that the United States and NATO are concocting even greater conspiracies against China."
CAPTION: Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov recently laid groundwork for a year-end Sino-Russian summit.