When Pentagon officials first sat down last year to update the core planning document of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they listed China as a potential future adversary, a momentous change from the last decade of the Cold War.

But when the final version of the document, titled "Joint Vision 2020," is released next week, it will be far more discreet. Rather than explicitly pointing at China, it simply will warn of the possible rise of an unidentified "peer competitor."

The Joint Chiefs' wrestling with how to think about China--and how open to be about that effort--captures in a nutshell the U.S. military's quiet shift away from its traditional focus on Europe. Cautiously but steadily, the Pentagon is looking at Asia as the most likely arena for future military conflict, or at least competition.

This new orientation is reflected in many small but significant changes: more attack submarines assigned to the Pacific, more war games and strategic studies centered on Asia, more diplomacy aimed at reconfiguring the U.S. military presence in the area.

It is a trend that carries huge implications for the shape of the armed services. It also carries huge stakes for U.S. foreign policy. Some specialists warn that as the United States thinks about a rising China, it ought to remember the mistakes Britain made in dealing with Germany in the years before World War I.

The new U.S. military interest in Asia also reverses a Cold War trend under which the Pentagon once planned by the year 2000 to have just "a minimal military presence" in Japan, recalls retired Army Gen. Robert W. RisCassi, a former U.S. commander in South Korea.

Two possibilities are driving this new focus. The first is a chance of peace in Korea; the second is the risk of a hostile relationship with China.

Although much of the current discussion in Washington is about a possible military threat from North Korea, for military planners the real question lies further ahead: What to do after a Korean rapprochement? In this view, South Korea already has won its economic and ideological struggle with North Korea, and all that really remains is to negotiate terms for peace.

According to one Defense Department official, William S. Cohen's first question to policy officials when he became defense secretary in 1997 was: How can we change the assumption that U.S. troops will be withdrawn after peace comes to the Korean peninsula? Next month's first-ever summit between the leaders of North and South Korea puts a sharper edge on this issue.

In the longer run, many American policymakers expect China to emerge sooner or later as a great power with significant influence over the rest of Asia. That, along with a spate of belligerent statements about Taiwan from Chinese officials this spring, has helped focus the attention of top policymakers on China's possible military ambitions. "The Chinese saber-rattling has gotten people's attention, there's no question of that," said Abram Shulsky, a China expert at the Rand Corp.

The Buzzword Is China

Between tensions over Taiwan and this week's House vote to normalize trade relations with China, "China is the new Beltway buzzword," observed Dov S. Zakheim, a former Pentagon official who is an adviser on defense policy to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.

To be sure, large parts of the U.S. military remain "Eurocentric," especially much of the Army. The shift is being felt most among policymakers and military planners--that is, officials charged with thinking about the future--and least among front-line units. Nor is it a change that the Pentagon is proclaiming from the rooftops. Defense Department officials see little value in being explicit about the shift in U.S. attention, which could worry old allies in Europe and antagonize China.

Even so, military experts point to changes on a variety of fronts. For example, over the last several years, there has been an unannounced shift in the Navy's deployment of attack submarines, which in the post-Cold War world have been used as intelligence assets--to intercept communications, monitor ship movements and clandestinely insert commandos--and also as front-line platforms for launching Tomahawk cruise missiles against Iraq, Serbia and other targets. Just a few years ago, the Navy kept 60 percent of its attack boats in the Atlantic. Now, says a senior Navy submariner, it has shifted to a 50-50 split between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, and before long the Pacific may get the majority.

But so far the focus on Asia is mostly conceptual, not physical. It is now a common assumption among national security thinkers that the area from Baghdad to Tokyo will be the main location of U.S. military competition for the next several decades. "The focus of great power competition is likely to shift from Europe to Asia," said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a small but influential Washington think tank. James Bodner, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, added that, "The center of gravity of the world economy has shifted to Asia, and U.S. interests flow with that."

When Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, one of the most thoughtful senior officers in the military, met with the Army Science Board earlier this spring, he commented off-handedly that America's "long-standing Europe-centric focus" probably would shift in coming decades as policymakers "pay more attention to the Pacific Rim, and especially to China." This is partly because of trade and economics, he indicated, and partly because of the changing ethnic makeup of the U.S. population. (California is enormously important in U.S. domestic politics, explains one Asia expert at the Pentagon, and Asian Americans are increasingly influential in that state's elections, which can make or break presidential candidates.)

Just 10 years ago, said Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., commandant of the Army War College, roughly 90 percent of U.S. military thinking about future warfare centered on head-on clashes of armies in Europe. "Today," he said, "it's probably 50-50, or even more" tilted toward warfare using characteristic Asian tactics, such as deception and indirection.

War Gaming

The U.S. military's favorite way of testing its assumptions and ideas is to run a war game. Increasingly, the major games played by the Pentagon--except for the Army--take place in Asia, on an arc from Tehran to Tokyo. The games are used to ask how the U.S. military might respond to some of the biggest questions it faces: Will Iran go nuclear--or become more aggressive with an array of hard-to-stop cruise missiles? Will Pakistan and India engage in nuclear war--or, perhaps even worse, will Pakistan break up, with its nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Afghan mujaheddin? Will Indonesia fall apart? Will North Korea collapse peacefully? And what may be the biggest question of all: Will the United States and China avoid military confrontation? All in all, estimates one Pentagon official, about two-thirds of the forward-looking games staged by the Pentagon over the last eight years have taken place partly or wholly in Asia.

Last year, the Air Force's biggest annual war game looked at the Mideast and Korea. This summer's game, "Global Engagement 5," to be played over more than a week at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, will posit "a rising large East Asian nation" that is attempting to wrest control of Siberia, with all its oil and other natural resources, from a weak Russia. At one point, the United States winds up basing warplanes in Siberia to defend Russian interests.

Because of the sensitivity of talking about fighting China, "What everybody's trying to do is come up with games that are kind of China, but not China by name," said an Air Force strategist.

"I think that, however reluctantly, we are beginning to face up to the fact that we are likely over the next few years to be engaged in an ongoing military competition with China," noted Princeton political scientist Aaron L. Friedberg. "Indeed, in certain respects, we already are."

Twin Efforts

The new attention to Asia also is reflected in two long-running, military-diplomatic efforts.

The first is a drive to renegotiate the U.S. military presence in northeast Asia. This is aimed mainly at ensuring that American forces still will be welcome in South Korea and Japan if the North Korean threat disappears. To that end, the U.S. military will be instructed to act less like post-World War II occupation forces and more like guests or partners.

Pentagon experts on Japan and Korea say they expect that "status of forces agreements" gradually will be diluted, so that local authorities will gain more jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel in criminal cases. In addition, they predict that U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea will be jointly operated in the future by American and local forces, perhaps even with a local officer in command.

At Kadena Air Force Base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, for example, the U.S. military has started a program, called "Base Without Fences," under which the governor has been invited to speak on the post, local residents are taken on bus tours of the base that include a stop at a memorial to Japan's World War II military, and local reporters have been given far more access to U.S. military officials.

"We don't have to stay in our foxhole," said Air Force Brig. Gen. James B. Smith, who devised the more open approach. "To guarantee a lasting presence, there needs to be a private and public acknowledgment of the mutual benefit of our presence."

Behind all this lies a quiet recognition that Japan may no longer unquestioningly follow the U.S. lead in the region. A recent classified national intelligence estimate concluded that Japan has several strategic options available, among them seeking a separate accommodation with China, Pentagon officials disclosed. "Japan isn't Richard Gere in 'An Officer and a Gentleman,' " one official said. "That is, unlike him, it does have somewhere else to go."

In the long term, this official added, a key goal of U.S. politico-military policy is to ensure that when Japan reemerges as a great power, it behaves itself in Asia, unlike the last time around, in the 1930s, when it launched a campaign of vicious military conquest.

Southeast Asia Redux

The second major diplomatic move is the negotiation of the U.S. military's reentry in Southeast Asia, 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War and almost 10 years after the United States withdrew from its bases in the Philippines. After settling on a Visiting Forces Agreement last year, the United States and the Philippines recently staged their first joint military exercise in years, "Balikatan 2000."

The revamped U.S. military relationship with the Philippines, argues one general, may be a model for the region. Instead of building "Little America" bases with bowling alleys and Burger Kings that are off-limits to the locals, U.S. forces will conduct frequent joint exercises to train Americans and Filipinos to operate together in everything from disaster relief to full-scale combat. The key, he said, isn't permanent bases but occasional access to facilities and the ability to work with local troops.

Likewise, the United States has broadened its military contacts with Australia, putting 10,000 troops into the Queensland region a year ago for joint exercises. And this year, for the first time, Singapore's military is participating in "Cobra Gold," the annual U.S.-Thai exercise. Singapore also is building a new pier specifically to meet the docking requirements of a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier. The U.S. military even has dipped a cautious toe back into Vietnam, with Cohen this spring becoming the first defense secretary since Melvin R. Laird to visit that nation.

The implications of this change already are stirring concern in Europe. In the March issue of Proceedings, the professional journal of the U.S. Navy, Cmdr. Michele Consentino, an Italian navy officer, fretted about the American focus on the Far East and about "dangerous gaps" emerging in the U.S. military presence in the Mediterranean.

Where the Generals Are

If the U.S. military firmly concludes that its major missions are likely to take place in Asia, it may have to overhaul the way it is organized, equipped and even led. "Most U.S. military assets are in Europe, where there are no foreseeable conflicts threatening vital U.S. interests," said "Asia 2025," a Pentagon study conducted last summer. "The threats are in Asia," it warned.

This study, recently read by Cohen, pointedly noted that U.S. military planning remains "heavily focused on Europe," that there are four times as many generals and admirals assigned to Europe as to Asia, and that about 85 percent of military officers studying foreign languages are still learning European tongues.

"Since I've been here, we've tried to put more emphasis on our position in the Pacific," Cohen said in an interview as he flew home from his most recent trip to Asia. This isn't, he added, "a zero-sum game, to ignore Europe, but recognizing that the [economic] potential in Asia is enormous"--especially, he said, if the United States is willing to help maintain stability in the region.

'Tyranny of Distance'

Talk to a U.S. military planner about the Pacific theater, and invariably the phrase "the tyranny of distance" pops up. Hawaii may seem to many Americans to be well out in the Pacific, but it is another 5,000 miles from there to Shanghai. All told, it is about twice as far from San Diego to China as it is from New York to Europe.

Cohen noted that the military's new focus on Asia means, "We're going to want more C-17s" (military cargo planes) as well as "more strategic airlift" and "more strategic sealift."

Other experts say that barely scratches the surface of the revamping that Asian operations might require. The Air Force, they say, would need more long-range bombers and refuelers--and probably fewer short-range fighters such as the hot new F-22, designed during the Cold War for dogfights in the relatively narrow confines of Central Europe. "We are still thinking about aircraft design as if it were for the border of Germany," argues James G. Roche, head of Northrop Grumman Corp.'s electronic sensors unit and a participant in last year's Pentagon study of Asia's future. "Asia is a much bigger area than Europe, so planes need longer 'legs.' "

Similarly, the Navy would need more ships that could operate at long distances. It might even need different types of warships. For example, the Pentagon study noted, today's ships aren't "stealthy"--built to evade radar--and may become increasingly vulnerable as more nations acquire precision-guided missiles.

Also, the Navy may be called on to execute missions in places where it has not operated for half a century. If the multi-island nation of Indonesia falls apart, the Pentagon study suggested, then the Navy may be called upon to keep open the crucial Strait of Malacca, through which passes much of the oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to Japan and the rest of East Asia.

The big loser among the armed forces likely would be the Army, whose strategic relevancy already is being questioned as it struggles to deploy its forces more quickly. "At its most basic level, the rise of Asia means a rise of emphasis on naval, air and space power at the expense of ground forces," said Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.

In a few years, Pentagon insiders predict, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be from the Navy or Air Force, following 12 years in which Army officers--Generals Colin L. Powell, John Shalikashvili and Henry H. Shelton--have been the top officers in the military. Perhaps even more significantly, they foresee the Air Force taking away from the Navy at least temporarily the position of "CINCPAC," the commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific. There already is talk within the Air Force of basing parts of an "Air Expeditionary Force" in Guam, where B-2 stealth bombers have been sent in the past in response to tensions with North Korea.

Parallel With Past

If the implications for the U.S. military of a new focus on Asia are huge, so too are the risks. Some academics and Pentagon intellectuals see a parallel between the U.S. effort to manage the rise of China as a great power and the British failure to accommodate or divert the ambitions of a newly unified Germany in the late 19th century. That effort ended in World War I, which slaughtered a generation of British youth and marked the beginning of British imperial decline.

If Sino-American antagonism grows, some strategists warn, national missile defense may play the role that Britain's development of the battleship Dreadnought played a century ago--a superweapon that upset the balance by making Germany's arsenal strategically irrelevant. Chinese officials have said they believe the U.S. plan for missile defense is aimed at negating their relatively small force of about 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

If the United States actually builds a workable antimissile system, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski predicts, "the effect of that would be immediately felt by the Chinese nuclear forces and [would] presumably precipitate a buildup." That in turn could provoke India to beef up its own nuclear forces, a move that would threaten Pakistan. A Chinese buildup also could make Japan feel that it needed to build up its own military.

Indian officials already are quietly telling Pentagon officials that the rise of China will make the United States and India natural allies. India also is feeling its oats militarily. The Hindustan Times recently reported that the Indian navy plans to reach far eastward this year to hold submarine and aircraft exercises in the South China Sea, a move sure to tweak Beijing.

Some analysts believe that the hidden agenda of the U.S. military is to use the rise of Asia as a way to shore up the Pentagon budget, which now consumes about 3 percent of the gross domestic product, compared to 5.6 percent at the end of the Cold War in 1989. "If the military grabs onto this in order to get more money, that's scary," said retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who frequently conducts war games for the military.

Indeed, Cohen is already making the point that operating in Asia is expensive. He said it is clear that America will have to maintain "forward" forces in Asia. And that, he argued, will require a bigger defense budget.

"There's a price to pay for what we're doing," Cohen concluded. "The question we're going to have to face in the coming years is, are we willing to pay up?"

An Eye on Asia

U.S. forces dedicated to the Pacific region:

U.S. Army Pacific 60,000 soldiers and civilians

(two divisions and one brigade)

U.S. Pacific Fleet 130,000 sailors and civilians

(170 ships)

Pacific Air Forces 40,000 airmen and civilians

(380 aircraft in nine wings)

Marine Forces Pacific 70,000 Marines and civilians

(two expeditionary forces)

On Foreign Shores

Major U.S. deployments in Asia include:

U.S. Forces Japan

47,000 personnel ashore and 12,000 afloat at 90 locations.

U.S. Forces Korea

37,500 personnel at 85 installations

Training Grounds

The Pacific Command participates in dozens of joint exercises with allied countries each year, including:

1. Cobra Gold: The U.S.-Thai exercise is expanding to include Singapore.

2. Foal Eagle: Brings together U.S. and South Korean troops on the Korean peninsula.

3. Crocodile: A training exercise with Australia at Shoalwater Bay.

4. Rim of the Pacific: Participants include the U.S., Australia, Japan and South Korea (pictured above).

SOURCE: U.S. Pacific Command