TOKYO — Just a few days ago, the top military leaders of the United States and China met in Washington for the first time in years and pledged to work toward a closer relationship, laying out a series of proposed confidence-building exchanges, such as joint training for rescues at sea and fighting the spread of the flu.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chinese Gen. Caihou Xu, vice chairman of the People’s Liberation Army Central Military Commission, portrayed the initiatives in late October as a sign of newfound Sino-American military cooperation.

But what was most remarkable about the cooperative steps was just how modest they were.

The Cold War was supposed to have ended after the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago and communism collapsed across Europe. So why does it still feel so chilly in the Pacific?

Few believe that China and the United States are headed for another arms race like the deadly, decadeslong competition that played out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in proxy conflicts around the world.

Instead, China is playing a new role, that of an intimate adversary that continues to keep much of the world on guard.

"China’s military, its navy and air, are not on par with what the Soviets had in the 1980s," said Abraham Denmark, formerly the country director for China affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and now a fellow with the Center for a New American Security. "They don’t pose the same sort of threat."

When the Soviet Union collapsed nearly two decades ago, China marched forward, never diluting its own identity. It is still Communist, inward-looking and fundamentally on the opposite side of many geopolitical arguments with the United States and Europe.

"In the Asia-Pacific, it’s much more complex," said Rouben Azizian, a former Soviet diplomat who now teaches at the Defense Department’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. "We have legacies here that we don’t have in Europe."

In its unsettled neighborhood, China chose to spread its economy rather than its ideology, said Dean Cheng, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

For countries such as South Korea, China’s influence is impossible to ignore.

“South Korea has established normalization with China,” said Bang Tae-seop, a researcher with the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul. The cost? “Cutting ties with Taiwan,” Bang said.

Yet China’s wealth brings global stability as well, many argue.

“If you are killing China, you are killing American investments,” Azizian said. “That is one mitigator of an arms race.”

But China is hedging those investments with a growing military. From 2000 to 2008, China’s defense budget went from $27.9 billion to $60.1 billion, according to the Pentagon’s annual security report on China. The U.S. defense budget for fiscal 2010 is $681 billion.

The rapid growth has caught the Pentagon off guard year after year, according to the man in charge of the U.S. Pacific Command. Last month, on his third day in command, Adm. Robert Willard conceded publicly that China’s military has “exceeded most of our intelligence estimates.”

Rear Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier strike group, elaborated on U.S. concerns during a recent visit to Hong Kong.

Noting that China’s military spending jumped almost 15 percent in 2009, he told reporters that “when we see a military growing at that rate, we’re interested in transparency and the understanding of the uses of that military.”

Cheng said he believes China’s increasing capabilities, rather than its spending trajectory, have unnerved the U.S. military. There’s a simple explanation: The United States once employed thousands of analysts and spies to monitor and decipher the Soviet Union, from battalion-level operations to the types of engines installed on patrol boats. That network doesn’t exist when it comes to China.

“On the military side, it’s nowhere near the analysis it needs to be,” Cheng said. “Of course, I’m not sure they understand us, either.”

That lack of understanding has consequences. Two years ago, China refused the USS Kitty Hawk entry to Hong Kong for a Thanksgiving-time port call. This year, Chinese ships have taunted and even tried to destroy sonar equipment used by U.S. military ships at sea.

Those actions are “certainly not that of a partner,” Denmark said. “That is concerning.”

Most experts say Taiwan remains the most likely flashpoint for a crisis between the United States and China. But they also say that likelihood has declined with last year’s election in Taiwan of President Ma Ying-jeou, who has asked China to turn away its missiles while pursuing free trade talks with Beijing. Japan, too, is watching China warily.

Both China’s growth and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are cause for concern in Tokyo, according to Toshiyuki Shikata, a retired Ground Self-Defense Force lieutenant general who now teaches at Teikyo University in Tokyo.

“The military threat has increased,” Shikata said. “Japan is facing a greater threat than during the Cold War era.”

China is protecting itself at the negotiating table as well. Its close ties with North Korea make China a vital player in the regional talks aimed at keeping the reclusive dictatorship from deploying nuclear weapons.

Experts believe that China does not want Pyongyang to possess nuclear weapons. But China wants instability and regime change in North Korea even less.

Thus, Beijing’s primary concern in the diplomatic negotiations is preventing the world from applying so much economic pressure on Pyongyang over the nuclear issue that it provokes a North Korean collapse — a development that would likely drive millions of desperate, starving North Koreans into China.

Twenty years ago, China had a collapse of its own. A few months before the Berlin Wall fell, Chinese tanks took aim at student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Western journalists broadcast unforgettable scenes from the confrontation that China has omitted from its own history textbooks ever since.

In many ways, Denmark said, the relationship between the United States and China is still recovering from Tiananmen Square. The U.S. military, he added, will continue to watch closely to see whether China will yet emerge as an acute military threat.

“If China continues the level of funding to [its] navy, China could play that role,” he said. “Yet, they could also go the other way and act as a partner with the United States countering piracy. It’s very much unclear.”

Hwang Hae-rym and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

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