Commentator Robert Reich
Commentator Robert Reich - 
Listen To The Story

KAI RYSSDAL: Of course, it's not all about business and economic growth in China. Earlier this week, Beijing announced it'll increase military spending almost 18 percent this year to about $45 billion. That's about a tenth of what the Pentagon gets, but it was still enough to get a some attention in Washington. Commentator Robert Reich explains that's just what the Chinese wanted.

ROBERT REICH: One clue is that China's announcement of its military build-up comes the same week Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is scheduled to visit. Presumably to continue pressing China to raise the value of its currency in light of the huge and growing trade imbalance with America.

You see, for China, economic security and military security go hand in hand. Both are part of the same strategy to make China a superpower. Maintaining its current 10 percent yearly growth rate necessitates reliable supplies of oil, natural gas, and other raw materials from all over the world — as well as the latest technologies. And China also needs growing export markets to absorb its increasing production, and provide jobs to the tens of millions of its people migrating from the countryside.

All this, in China's view, necessitates being able to play power politics — both with Middle East and Russian oil producers — whenever tensions arise over energy supplies.

And China needs to be able to flex its muscle with Japan, Europe, and America in the competition for energy and other critical raw materials — as well as continue to have access to technologies these nations possess. And it needs to keep its access to these hugely important markets.

So China's military build-up isn't a direct threat to the U.S. Power politics in today's world doesn't require the direct exercise of military power so much as the capacity to pressure other major powers indirectly.

For example, credibly threatening to use force against Taiwan. Or selling advanced weapons systems to developing nations. Or, in the case of North Korea, becoming the source of food and weapons.

Sound familiar? China is not inventing this strategy of combining economic power with military power. It's following in the footsteps of the nation that wrote the playbook on how it's done: the United States. That's why China's military announcement was timed to coincide with Hank Paulson's visit — and why Paulson's economic mission may be lost in translation.

RYSSDAL: Robert Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He used to be the labor secretary for President Clinton.