SINGAPORE -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that US pressure for political and economic change in China is not intended to undermine the Beijing government.
He criticized China for increasing military spending despite the absence of a threat from another country and said the Asian power risks diminishing its global influence unless it opens up its political system. Political and economic freedom are in China's best interests, he said.
''The implication that freedom means destabilization, I believe, is incorrect," Rumsfeld said in response to a question from a participant in an Asian security conference.
Conveying a hard line from the Bush administration, Rumsfeld used his keynote speech to challenge China's military buildup and urge political change.
''Economic success depends on increasingly freer economic systems. That will put pressure on a political system that is less free," Rumsfeld said. ''The task for China is to resolve that issue."
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon's annual assessment of China's military capabilities shows China now has the world's third-largest military budget, behind the United States and Russia. He did not say how large the United States believes China's military budget is.
A report last month by a US think tank put China's military spending between $69 billion and $78 billion a year, estimated in 2001 US dollars. That ranges between 2.3 percent and 2.8 percent of China's gross domestic product, according to the RAND Corp. That compares with the $430 billion spent by the United States on defense in 2004 -- 3.9 percent of the country's GDP.
Cui Tiankai, the director of the Asia bureau of China's foreign ministry, was in the audience for Rumsfeld's speech. He questioned Rumsfeld afterward.
''Do you truly believe that China is under no threat by other countries?" Cui asked. ''Do you truly believe that the US is threatened by the emergence of China?"
Rumsfeld said he does not think any country threatens China and that the US does not view China as a threat. But he did question why China has stationed hundreds of missiles within range of Taiwan.
''I just look at the significant rollout of ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan and I have to ask the question: If everyone agrees the question of Taiwan is going to be settled in a peaceful way, why this increase in ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan?" Rumsfeld said.
China has said it will attack Taiwan if the self-governing island tries to declare formal independence. China repeatedly has urged the United States to stop selling weapons to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province that must be reabsorbed by the mainland.
This year, China denounced a joint US-Japan statement that said the two allies shared the objective of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.
The United States wants the European Union to keep in place its ban on selling weapons to China. Washington argues that any European weapons sold to China could be used against Taiwan.
Cui rejected the suggestion that China is spending more than necessary on its military. ''Since the US is spending a lot more money than China is doing on defense, the US should understand that every country has its own security concerns and every country is entitled to spend money necessary for its own defense," Cui said.
Turning his attention to North Korea, Rumsfeld said China is in the best position to persuade the North Koreans to return to six-nation talks about its nuclear weapons program. Nearly a year has passed since North Korea, which has said its possesses nuclear weapons, last joined the talks.
South Korea's defense minister, who met with Rumsfeld yesterday, said Seoul agrees that China should try to persuade North Korea to rejoin the talks.
''I believe these efforts are very much respected," Yoon Kwang Ung told reporters.
Rumsfeld branded North Korea a worldwide threat because of its record of selling missile technology and weapons. ''One has to assume that they'll sell anything, and that they would sell nuclear technologies," Rumsfeld said.