China is fast heading for superpower status but would make a "great mistake" if it used its growing might to take Taiwan by force, the Pentagon's number two official warned in an interview published Wednesday.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz argued in an interview with The Washington Times that the highly sensitive Taiwan issue was at the core of US-China relations.
He said he was concerned that China may underestimate the US determination to defend nationalist Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.
"We can more than adequately back up the commitments that are enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act and which the president affirmed," he said.
"So the Chinese would be making a great mistake if they thought they could settle this thing on their terms by using force."
Bush said earlier this year that he would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan, but officials later denied he had diluted the strategic ambiguity which has always cloaked the likely US response to any attack on Taiwan.
The Taiwan Relations Act, passed in 1979, commits the president to offer Taiwan the means to defend itself and to determine with Congress an appropriate US response to any Chinese invasion.
Wolfowitz said in his interview that China's growing diplomatic and military weight was worrying to Bush administration policymakers, who have had a rocky time with Beijing, since coming to power.
"I would say overall we're concerned about the direction of Chinese policy, and the developments we see there," Wolfowitz said.
"I think the right way to think about China is that it's a country that is almost certain to become a superpower in the next half-century, and maybe in the next quarter-century, and that's pretty fast by historical standards."
He added that it would be a "tragic mistake" if Beijing decided to go the way of "traditional power diplomacy."
"I don't think China has to be a threat, but I think if we're complacent, then we could actually contribute to the opposite effect."
The Times, which is often favored by the Republican administration and intelligence sources, reported on Tuesday that China had boosted its missile force opposite Taiwan to 300, a development Wolfowitz said was an "effort at intimidation."
Statements from the Pentagon have traditionally been more hawkish on China than the more diplomatic tone favored by the State Department.
US and Chinese officials frequently engage in a public dialogue over Taiwan and Sino-US relations using their respective media.
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