BEIJING -- TO HEAR retired Gen. Xu Xin tell it, China's army, far from being a threat to the rest of the world, is so low on the list of Chinese priorities as to constitute no threat at all.
"The modernization of defense is now in the lowest order of priorities," the respected general, head of the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, told me. "China is still poor and, in setting the priority for modernization, we are putting the priority on agriculture, industry and science.
"By 1995, we see a defense expenditure that is the equivalent of $7.5 billion. The military expenditure per soldier is only 1/70th that of the U.S. and only 1/60th that of Japan. The main reason is China is still poor. China will not engage in military expansion or in an arms race with anybody. We became aware of the consequences during the Cold War.
"We won't repeat the past. Our intent is to walk on our own path, according to circumstances."
Yet only a week before, in Tokyo, Hisahiko Okazaki, the "Kissinger" of Japan, was laying out a dramatically different security scenario for Asia.
"The Taiwan Straits will be the biggest issue of the next 10 years," said this former head of the Japan Defense Forces. "It will make Bosnia look like nothing. Taiwan is now a free and democratic nation, more so than even Singapore.
"China has tremendous increasing military capacity to torment Taiwan. Its fleet is based in the East China Sea. The Americans have a chain of bases in Okinawa. Hong Kong will give China increased naval power. Tensions will increase, and they will involve Japan, the U.S., China and Taiwan.
"China's military capacity now is small. It is not a military threat now. But after 10 years, yes, it will be. And no Chinese strategist will be opposed to China's having power commensurate with its history -- they will only think it natural."
Who is right and who is wrong? Is China, as the general says, only an innocent bystander to power plays in the Pacific (as a matter of historical record, China actually has not been an overtly expansionist power). Or as the perceptive Mr. Okazaki says, are we dealing here with complicated issues of timing, applied power and ideas of historical rights?
As for China's much-vaunted "re-arming," the country has been buying enormous amounts of technology from bankrupt Russian labs -- reportedly even worrying the Russian general staff. China's apparent supplying of M-11 missiles to Pakistan and of missiles and other advanced weaponry to Iran has profoundly worried the United States.
But there is a curious situation developing in the South China Sea involving the largely unknown (at least in the U.S.) Spratly Islands, which comprise 21 islands in atolls, 50 submerged landforms, and innumerable spits of rock and reef. China loosely claims 80 percent of the sea, a huge area that stretches from Hong Kong to Malaysia and from the Philippines to Vietnam.
When you ask virtually any Chinese, he will tell you that this area has been part of China for untold dynasties. But in fact, the question of the Spratlys came up only recently when oil was discovered in the area. The consequent flexing of China's muscle there deeply disturbed its neighbors, while the United States, which under the Clinton administration has withdrawn American power from Asia, has taken no strong position on the dispute.
Here is what I think China is doing diplomatically. Even from an admitted position of weakness, she is cleverly deploying her traditional styles of special diplomacy backed up by the future threat of her rapidly developing power. She deals with countries, as she is doing now in the South China Sea, one-on-one, eschewing the multi-lateralism the Clinton people so cling to. ("One chopstick is easy to break," is the way one Asian diplomat explains the tactic.)
China has always dealt in examples. The South China Sea is her first post-Cold War demarche. Or, as Mr. Okazaki said: "Chinese traditional strategy is that it is foolish to fight a war; you want to win the war without fighting. You have overwhelming strength and prestige and you simply ask the barbarians to withdraw and say, 'Pardon our insolence for challenging the celestial empire.' "
But there are some new elements today. In 1983, China became a net importer of oil. There are vast oil and mineral resources at stake in the South China Sea. China's burgeoning population is suffering from a severe deficit of protein: China's military leaders have publicly called for seizing the rich fishing grounds in the Spratlys to feed their people.
So, when one puts it all together, both Gen. Xu and Mr. Okazaki can be said to be right. The prudent would read the message: "Dangers ahead."
Georgie Anne Geyer writes on foreign affairs.