WASHINGTON — China has long-term ambitions to extend its power across the Asian continent and its leaders in the future "may be tempted to resort to force or coercion more quickly to press diplomatic advantage, advance security interests or resolve disputes," the Pentagon told Congress on Tuesday.
In a report that could stoke growing anti-Beijing sentiment in Congress, the Pentagon declared that China was looking beyond its long-standing confrontation with Taiwan and that its rapid arms buildup was increasingly aimed at expanding its military power in the region. The Pentagon assessment of China's military, required annually by Congress, goes far beyond previous reports in its attempts to discern the strategy behind China's arms buildup.
The Pentagon report was due to Congress in March, and many have speculated that the long delay was the result of fights within the Bush administration over the tone of the report. The State Department is preparing to open a new diplomatic front with China aimed at deeper engagement with the world's most-populous nation and building trust between the two powers.
Pentagon officials insist that the report has been carefully vetted by the State Department and the National Security Council and that its conclusions are endorsed by the entire U.S. government.
The more hawkish report comes at a time the Defense Department is conducting a top-to-bottom review of its own arsenal. The high-level assessment -- known as the Quadrennial Defense Review -- will serve as the blueprint for military budgets for the next four years, and some in the Defense Department point out that a growing threat from China helps the Pentagon justify multibillion-dollar weapons that would be ill-suited for fighting amorphous terrorist networks.
For instance, Air Force officials, fighting vigorously to preserve the budget for the Stealth F-22 fighter, have put emphasis this year on China's improved air defenses and the F-22's abilities to elude radar.
"You look at the Air Force's briefings, and they are all China, China, China," said a senior defense official working on the Quadrennial Defense Review.
Chinese officials have stressed that their government has no intention of threatening neighboring nations or disturbing regional stability. Its mission, they say, is to develop a credible deterrent so Taiwan doesn't declare independence.
Chinese analysts have argued that Beijing's increased defense spending is in line with the country's economic growth; its budget is a fraction of Washington's; and the spending is needed to modernize a force that is well behind in technology, hardware and logistics.
Rather than merely listing Beijing's arsenal, the Pentagon report also expresses concerns about the threat that China's growing fleet of ships, submarines, jets and ballistic missiles could pose within a decade to Asia's balance of power.
"Current trends in China's military modernization could provide China with a force capable of prosecuting a range of military operations in Asia -- well beyond Taiwan -- potentially posing a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region," the report states.
The Pentagon estimates that China might be spending up to $90 billion annually on its military -- three times its officially acknowledged defense budget. That would make China the world's third-largest defense spender, and the largest in Asia. A large portion of the secret budget is spent purchasing high-tech weaponry from nations such as Russia and Israel, the report concludes.
But the report notes that China's lofty ambitions are restricted by its current military realities: Its surface fleet is largely incapable of projecting power far beyond Chinese territorial waters; it has no aircraft carriers; and most of its planes cannot be refueled while in flight, thus curtailing the military's reach.
Yet Pentagon officials believe that military planners in Beijing have adopted a strategy of patience. The U.S. officials also contend that China views expansion of its strategic reach as necessary to help meet its need for additional natural resources, such as oil, natural gas and metals.
"There's a cliche out there that all they're focusing on is their economic [growth], that they just want to be fat, happy communists," said a senior defense official who was involved in writing the China report. "We're saying 'be careful' because they have their own doctrine of comprehensive national power."
The Pentagon assessment details the advances in China's arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles capable of striking ports and air bases in the western Pacific, as well as long-range weapons that can strike India, Australia and most cities within the United States.
The report says that China has also made considerable advances in sea and air power, among them the indigenous Yuan-class submarine, launched last year, and a high-tech F-10 fighter, which will be rolled out this year.