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Economic powerhouse China focuses on its military might

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A06

China is quickly modernizing its military and has set its sights on extending its influence deep into the Pacific and Indian oceans now that the military balance with its longtime nemesis, Taiwan, is tilting in its favor, the Defense Department reported Monday.

In its annual report to Congress on China's military, the Defense Department said that the People's Liberation Army is advancing across the board commensurate with China's burgeoning economic power. Coincidentally, the report was issued a day after China's economy was recognized as the world's second biggest, eclipsing Japan's in size during the second quarter of this year.

The report listed numerous areas in which China's military is on the march. China is deploying a new class of nuclear-powered submarines equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is pouring money into space warfare systems and cyberwarfare capabilities. It is developing a "carrier killer" anti-ship ballistic missile.

China has "the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world," the report said. Beijing "now possesses one of the largest" forces of surface-to-air missiles in the world, it added. And it has the "largest force of principal combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare ships in Asia."

A decade ago, fewer than 10 percent of China's subs were considered "modern" by the Pentagon. Today, half are. Similarly dramatic jumps have been made in China's air defenses, the report noted, although naval surface forces and China's air force still lag behind.

China is also changing the way it thinks about its military, the report said. In the past, its military focused on guarding China's sovereignty, which implied that China's fighting men would not stray far from the country's borders. Now that thinking has evolved to a paradigm designed to protect China's interests, including economic interests, which span the globe.

The main focus of China's military modernization, however, remains Taiwan, the self-governing island of 20 million people that Beijing claims as its own territory. As part of its buildup to threaten that island, China is focusing on denying U.S. forces the ability to operate in that region by working on an anti-ship ballistic missile, strengthening its air defense, and building or buying more attack submarines, the report said.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is obligated to provide weapons for Taiwan's defense; it is not required to defend Taiwan if it is attacked.

Still, the report was not optimistic about Taiwan's ability to defend itself against China. "The balance of cross-Strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland's favor," the report said, noting that by December, the PLA had deployed 1,050 to 1,150 short-range ballistic missiles in areas opposite Taiwan.

The Pentagon has been issuing these reports since 2000 pursuant to U.S. law, but this year's report is more ambitious in scope in that it includes a discussion of the Pentagon's views of China's broader strategic goals and U.S. officials' visions for relations with China.

As such, the report contained an important message to China's military, said David Finkelstein, a former U.S. army officer and director of China studies at the Center for Naval Analyses.

"Yes, the U.S. does want to have a military relationship with you. And, yes, the U.S. wants to expand the areas where the U.S. and China can cooperate," he said. "And, yes, the U.S. recognizes that there are serious differences between the two sides, but we can't deal with those differences if we're not talking with each other."

China broke off most military ties with the United States this year after the Obama administration approved the sale of $6.4 billion worth of arms to Taiwan. Since then, high-ranking Chinese military officers have lambasted the United States and its policies in Asia in unusually harsh language.

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