WASHINGTON — A Pentagon report on Chinese military modernization issued Tuesday reveals growing American concern over China's ability not only to threaten Taiwan, but also to throw its power around throughout East Asia and confront other U.S. allies.
This year's edition of the annual report highlights apprehension among U.S. military officials that China is gearing up to confront Japan, and demands an explanation for Beijing's naval, air and missile buildup.
"They are very worried the Chinese are posturing for a maritime confrontation with Japan," said James Mulvenon, deputy director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, an independent research firm in Washington.
Although many analysts share the Bush administration's concern that the growth of the Chinese military could upset the balance of power in East Asia, they were more skeptical about the report's estimate of China's overall military spending.
The Pentagon cited a Defense Intelligence Agency estimate that put China's 2006 military spending between $70 billion and $105 billion. Independent analysts say that China clearly spends more than its official figure of $35 billion, but some, such as Mulvenon, said the actual figure was more likely to be no more than $50 billion.
Analysts also expressed doubt that China's efforts posed an immediate threat to the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.
"The Pentagon believes the Chinese modernization is designed to create a dominant position in East Asia and displace the United States," said Ted Galen Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. "That might be a long-term goal, but you would have to measure that in decades, not years."
Soon after it took office in 2001, the Bush administration began to question China's military upgrades. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the threat from China fell by the wayside as a leading U.S. worry. This year's report reflects the administration's renewed concern, said Carpenter, the author of the book "America's Coming War With China."
"It's a resumption of what we saw in the first months of the administration," he said. "We are seeing a return to that focus. China is the most likely strategic competitor for this country."
Congress requires the Pentagon to produce an annual assessment of China's military power. This year's 50-page document dwells much more than previous versions on China's ability to strike not just at Taiwan but also across East Asia. And the report notes that relations between China and Japan are worsening, largely over conflicts involving potential energy reserves in the East China Sea.
"The pace and scope of China's military buildup already place regional military balances at risk," the report says. "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."
"Modern militaries," independent defense analysts say, could mean the Japanese military or U.S. Navy. The worry for American policymakers is that a more aggressive Chinese military presence could set off a destabilizing arms race in Asia.
The report cites several key expansions in Chinese military power over the last year, including an increase in the number of short-range missiles that could be used against Taiwan. The report also discusses China's acquisitions of tanker aircraft that could increase the range of its fighter planes.
"There is a much clearer focus in this year's report on China's ability to project military power in the Asia region and its ability to constrain the U.S. military in the Western Pacific," said Evan S. Medeiros, a Rand Corp. expert on China.
In some respects, this year's report is catching up with what independent experts have already written. In the past, the Pentagon has looked skeptically on reports that China intends to deploy an aircraft carrier.
This year's report offers new details on aircraft carrier developments and essentially concludes that China's intentions remain an open question, arguing that Beijing could be preparing a carrier bought from Russia as an operational vessel or, as China has asserted, a recreational casino.
Previous Pentagon reports have also been equivocal about China's intention to field missiles capable of striking ships at sea. This year's report is far clearer, stating that "one area of apparent investment" involves ballistic missiles with guidance systems that allow them to "strike surface ships on the high seas."
"This capability," the report goes on to say, "would have particular significance for regional stability, owing to the preemptive and coercive options that it would provide China's leaders."
The Pentagon's most important target audience may not be Congress. Instead, military officials may be hoping for attention from other East Asian nations. The Pentagon report reflects growing concern that other allies have not focused on the potential threat from China or the possibility of a military confrontation with Japan, Mulvenon said.
"The Pentagon is trying to press the case that Chinese modernization poses a potential threat to regional stability," he said.