HONG KONG — One figure that emerged from the current session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing has intrigued China-watchers — the 9.6 percent scheduled growth in defense spending this year, far less than the 17.6 percent increase of last year.

“The fact that defense-spending growth is below double digits shows that the Chinese are not that worried about encirclement” by the United States, an American Sinologist said. “The single-digit defense number shows that the Chinese are more relaxed (about its military capability) and not as worried about the U.S. targeting them as at the beginning of the Bush administration.”

There is general agreement that Sino-American relations today are the best they have been since the Tiananmen Square military crackdown in 1989. However, in the long run, serious problems are bound to emerge as the interests of the two countries diverge. China is a rising power whose emergence threatens the pre-eminent status of the U.S.

For now, things are going well. China is a partner in America’s war on terrorism and has accepted growing U.S. influence in countries along China’s periphery. The U.S. is building a new strategic relationship with Russia. American alliances with countries in Asia have been strengthened. And the U.S. has enhanced its relationship with India, China’s old rival, and Pakistan, China’s old friend and ally.

These developments, of course, reflect Washington’s war against terrorism. But to strategists sitting in Beijing, they could also be interpreted as an attempt to encircle China. But the single-digit number shows that, while some military people may have such concerns, the Communist party leadership as a whole does not view the situation with alarm.

Deep down, though, there is distrust of the U.S., a sentiment that is reciprocated in Washington. Just how the U.S. sees the world was unveiled last September in a document called the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” This document contains statements that Chinese leaders must have read with great concern.

For one thing, Washington indicated that it was moving from a strategy of deterrence to one of preemption. “Rogue states and terrorists,” it said, “rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction.” To forestall such hostile acts, it said, “the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”

This doctrine of preemption is troubling to China, since it can never know where or when the U.S. may strike. It is certainly very worrying to North Korea, which fears a nuclear attack by the U.S.

Throughout the document, the U.S. expressed friendship and understanding for other major powers, such as Russia and India. Where China is concerned, though, Washington sounded distinctly cool. “In pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region,” it warned, “China is following an outdated path that, in the end, will hamper its own pursuit of national greatness.”

The U.S., it appears clear, sees China as a potential adversary. It is therefore significant that the document makes the following assertion:

“The United States must and will maintain the capability to defeat any attempt by an enemy to impose its will on the United States. . . . Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.”

There it is, in black and white. The U.S. will see to it that no country can ever equal its military power, not to say surpass it. As the document says, “Today, the United States enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence.” It intends to stay that way.

The perception of China as a rival was evident even before U.S. President George W. Bush became president. During the campaign, Bush labeled China a “strategic competitor” rather than a “strategic partner.”

For now, the U.S. needs China’s cooperation to wage war on terrorism. Its plate is too full for it to give its undivided attention to China. In fact, this state of affairs is likely to last for a rather long time, since no one expects terrorism to be wiped out in the near term.

From that standpoint, China can, for the time being, afford to relax about upgrading its military. But the Chinese leaders are well aware that, in the long term, there are bound to be difficulties, with the world’s sole superpower viewing a rising China as a potential challenge to its supremacy.

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