China's military buildup is broadening the reach of its forces in Asia and poses a long-term threat not only to Taiwan but to the U.S. military in the Pacific and to regional powers such as India and Japan, according to an assessment released yesterday by the Pentagon.
The Beijing government is also improving and expanding its nuclear arsenal, fielding more advanced nuclear missiles capable of striking India, Russia and "virtually all of the United States," said the annual China military power report, based on U.S. intelligence and mandated by Congress. The report, however, said China's ability to project its conventional military power remains limited.
China's defense spending could grow to $90 billion in 2005 -- three times the Chinese government's official figure -- making the country's military budget the world's third-largest, after the United States and Russia, and the biggest in Asia.
The report comes as the Pentagon focuses on China's steady military modernization as a driving force in long-range U.S. defense strategy and overseas basing, American military officials and analysts say. It generated intense debate within the Bush administration, with the State Department pushing for a benign depiction of China's intentions, while the Pentagon sought to emphasize a potentially insidious threat, defense officials said.
The report suggests a renewed wariness of China on the part of the Bush administration, which has collaborated with Beijing on the effort to curb North Korea's nuclear programs and in the fight against terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Yesterday's report reflected the fact that over the last several years, China's massive investment in defense has become far more stark and deliberate.
"Without a doubt, the direction Chinese military modernization has taken in recent years absolutely represents a growing threat to the U.S.," said Evan Medeiros, an expert on China's military at the Rand Corp. Still, several analysts agreed that U.S. military dominance in the region is secure for at least another decade.
The Pentagon's 45-page report is factual in tone, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric that would paint China as an inevitable foe. But it stresses that Beijing's future course is highly uncertain, and contains detailed charts documenting significant increases in weaponry and military investment.
Many of the advances reflect China's long-standing priority on building a force capable of preventing Taiwan from achieving formal independence from the mainland..
Last year, China expanded the number of mobile, CSS-6 and CSS-7 short-range ballistic missiles deployed on the coast opposite Taiwan from 500 to between 650 and 730. The increase signifies a faster buildup, now at a rate of about 100 missiles per year, while the range and accuracy of the missiles is also improving, the report said.
China now has more than 700 aircraft that can fly to Taiwan without refueling, including new advanced Russian Su-30 and Su- 27 fighter jets and a newly completed indigenous fighter, the F-10, which will be fielded for the first time this year.
In contrast to previous reports, this year's places a heavier emphasis on the threat posed by the modernization of the People's Liberation Army to other regional powers beyond Taiwan and to U.S. forces in Asia, as well as to the continental United States.
"Over the long term, if current trends persist, PLA capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region," the report said.
Indeed, the report quotes a Chinese general as suggesting that China's focus on Taiwan is an obstacle to the projection of China's military power elsewhere. The Taiwan issue is of "far-reaching significance to breaking international forces' blockade against China's maritime security . . . only when we break this blockade shall we be able to talk about China's rise," Gen. Wen Zongren, political commissar of the PLA Academy of Military Science, said in an interview quoted in the report. "To rise suddenly, China must pass through oceans and go out of the oceans in its future development."
The report cited expanded Chinese naval operations such as the "intrusion" last year of a Han-class nuclear submarine in Japanese territorial waters, and new abilities of Chinese fighters to range farther into the South China Sea.
China last year deployed its first two Russian-made guided missile destroyers and is buying eight additional Kilo-class diesel electric submarines from Russia, giving it 12 of the stealthy vessels. The Kilo submarines will be equipped with long-range anti-ship missile systems that could be used to attack U.S. naval forces from 100 miles away or more, according to Roger Cliff, a military analyst at Rand Corp.
The Chinese navy's advances are coupled with development of new ground-to-ground and ground-to-air missiles to constitute a Chinese "anti-access" strategy aimed at countering the U.S. ability to operate near its borders, the report says. China's new S-300PMU2, a surface-to-air missile with a 100-mile range, would allow it "to engage aircraft over Taiwan," the report said, including U.S. aircraft aiding Taiwan in a confrontation with China.
China is also "qualitatively and quantitatively" improving its nuclear missile force, which is now capable of targeting most of the world, including all of the continental United States, the report said.
Of greatest concern, say U.S. military analysts, are the new, mobile DF-31 and DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are expected to become operational as early as 2005 and 2007, respectively. Because they are mobile, the missiles are not as vulnerable to destruction by a first strike. "It's starting to give them a second strike capability against the U.S.," Cliff said.
Details on China's nuclear advances come against the backdrop of last week's warning by Chinese Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu that China would respond with nuclear weapons to a U.S. attack on Chinese territory. U.S. analysts who know Zhu say they believe that his views, which he stressed were just his personal opinions, were expressed with at least tacit approval from China's leaders.
"They think it's good to have a mad dog in your closet who might scare your potential adversaries," said retired Adm. Dennis Blair, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, who heard Zhu make similar comments earlier this year. "It always helps your leverage if your adversaries think you might do something stupid."