WASHINGTON - When the House voted Wednesday to grant China permanent normal trading privileges, Rep. Duncan Hunter led a band of conservatives who warned that the vote would help the bellicose Communist nation rebuild its military to threaten the United States.
"Whichever side of this debate one is on, everyone here has to concede American dollars are arming Communist China today," said Hunter, a California Republican, likening the global situation to 1941 and the sudden American realization that Japan was a danger.
"If the cemeteries of this country one day hold the bodies of Americans in uniform killed with weapons purchased by American trade dollars - that will be the greatest tragedy of this new 21st century."
But Hunter's arguments did not carry the day during the House vote on the China trade bill - even among fellow Republicans, who have historically been wary of the Asian power. The question of what actual threat China poses to the United States and its allies is a murky one, defense officials and China analysts say.
While Beijing has increased spending on its military, many Pentagon officials and policy analysts question whether China would ever attack U.S. forces in the Pacific or its regional allies, notably Taiwan. Further, there is no consensus on how long it would take China to expand its military might to match a global power such as the United States.
China is decades away from becoming a world military power, according to a Pentagon report declassified last year, a conclusion embraced by many policy analysts.
Ronald N. Montaperto, a senior research professor at National Defense University, a Pentagon-run school in Washington, said he doubts that China would risk becoming a political pariah or gamble on the might of the U.S. military by starting a war with the United States or its allies.
Nevertheless, some China watchers like Edward Timperlake, a former Republican House staff member and writer, assert that China's stepped up military spending could pose a threat to U.S. interests in the region and make it a superpower within a decade.
The trade bill now moves to the Senate, where Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, has vowed to press for an annual review of China's sale of military hardware and technology to other countries, including North Korea and Pakistan, and impose sanctions. Thompson said he was considering adding the measure as an amendment to the trade bill.
"Right now, they're a very capable regional power," said Timperlake, co-author of "Year of the Rat: How Bill Clinton Compromised U.S. Security for Chinese Cash." "They're moving rather quickly to superpower status."
China has the world's largest standing army - 3 million strong, compared with 1 million active and Reserve units in the U.S. Army - but it lacks America's sophisticated weaponry as well as transport ships and planes to move troops outside the country. Some analysts joke that China would have to invade Taiwan with a "million man swim."
Meanwhile, China is moving to strengthen its naval and air forces with Russian equipment. After failing for 30 years to develop its own fighter aircraft, China has bought dozens of Russian models that are akin to the U.S. Air Force's F-16.
It has also beefed up its fleet of warships by buying a Russian destroyer that carries a high-speed missile that could threaten U.S. ships in the Pacific. One destroyer was delivered on Christmas Day; another is on order. China has hundreds of short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan.
Still, Beijing spends about $45 billion annually on defense, compared with the estimated $291 billion Pentagon budget.
China clearly sees the United States as its "main enemy" according to 21 retired military and national security leaders, who wrote an open letter to Congress this week urging a vote against the trade measure.
Those signing the letter - including retired Gen. Carl Mundy, former commandant of the Marine Corps, and William R. Graham, former science adviser to President Reagan - outlined the Chinese increases in military spending and the combative comments from Chinese officials.
In December, the letter said, China's defense minister, Gen. Chi Haotian, told senior officers that they must prepare for the "inevitable" war to break the U.S. "hegemony" in the Pacific.
Though China is shoring up its air force and navy, U.S. analysts and government officials said, it is putting more emphasis on upgrading missiles of short, medium and intercontinental range. The number of short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan could rise to 650 by 2005, according to Pentagon estimates.
Bates Gill, a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, has said the missiles are a "rather cheap, relatively painless and effective way" of deterring Taiwan from independence.
But he is among those who argue that China faces technological, economic and political obstacles that will impede military progress.