Cash-flush China's military is undergoing a "critical" phase of modernization amid uncertainty over how it will use its growing capabilities, an annual report prepared by the Pentagon for the U.S. Congress said Wednesday.
A senior Pentagon official warned as the report was released that Beijing's robust investment in modern defense hardware and technology threatens to destabilize military balances in Asia and fuel tensions.
Over the past year, China made several rapid military advances, including test flying a new stealth fighter and conducting sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, as Asia's biggest economy moved to secure strategic shipping lanes and mineral-rich areas in the South China Sea.
Space was also a focus of its modernization program, with a record 15 launches in 2010 covering both both civil and military flights.
"[T]he pace and scope of China's sustained military investment have allowed China to pursue capabilities that we believe are potentially destabilizing to regional military balances, increase the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation, and may contribute to regional tensions and anxieties,” Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, told reporters in Washington.
He said the capabilities could tempt the Chinese government to use military force “to gain diplomatic advantage, advance its interests, or resolve … disputes in its favor.”
This danger, he said, re-emphasizes the need for a "sustained and reliable" military-to-military dialogue between the United States and China.
Lack of transparency
Due to China's lack of transparency, the report said it is difficult to figure how much the country spends on its military, but estimates it at around U.S. $ 165 billion this year, up by 12.7 percent.
The U.S. defense budget, which was nearly $700 billion in 2010, is the world's largest.
China, which has the world's largest currency reserves at a whopping U.S. $3.2 trillion, says the People's Liberation Army (PLA) modernization program is aimed solely at "self-defense."
The Pentagon report said that following a period of ambitious acquisition, "the decade from 2011 through 2020 will prove critical to the PLA as it attempts to integrate many new and complex platforms, and to adopt modern operational concepts, including joint operations and network-centric warfare."
"China has made modest, but incremental, improvements in the transparency of its military and security affairs. However, there remains uncertainty about how China will use its growing capabilities," the report said.
It also repeated warnings about China's increasing military edge over Taiwan, which Beijing considers a province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
Taiwan arms sale
China froze military contacts with the U.S. last year in protest of an arms sale to self-governing Taiwan worth more than $6 billion.
Washington is committed to providing arms to Taiwan based on a three-decade-old U.S. law called the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires Washington to help the island defend itself.
There have been calls from Taiwan and several American lawmakers for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to the island, but Schiffer said Washington has not yet made a decision on any new arms sales to Taipei.
Some reports have said the U.S. sale of 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16 C/D fighter jets to Taiwan appears unlikely.
The report also touched on China's cyber activities, which it said would help Beijing gather military information and slow down an adversary's response time by crippling networks.
It said that several big intrusions in 2010 that targeted U.S. and other computer systems appeared to originate in China and to have been aimed at pilfering information. Those same hacking skills are similar to those needed to conduct cyber attacks, the report added.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.