The annual Pentagon report on China's military power says China continues to increase the "pace and scope" of its military modernization, and expresses concern about a lack of clarity on how Chinese leaders intend to use their growing capability. But the report also says China is years from being able to seriously challenge U.S. military power, even in areas fairly close to China's borders.
The annual report, required by the Congress, says China continues to spend large amounts of money to upgrade its forces and give them high-technology capabilities. But the report says it will be well into the 2020 decade before China will have the ability to sustain substantial forces far from home. It says the Chinese army compensates for its limited abilities by investing in what the Pentagon calls "disruptive" technologies, designed to deny an adversary access to a specific area or to attack an enemy's computer networks or space-based assets.
The report also says China has increased the quality and quantity of its strategic nuclear missiles. But it says "there is little evidence that China's military and civilian leaders have fully thought through the global" implications of using their nuclear arsenal, or their their anti-satellite and cyber-warfare capabilities.
The report says China's efforts are changing the Asian military balance and have implications beyond the region. In particular, the Pentagon report says China continues to build up its forces along the Taiwan Strait, a development Press Secretary Geoff Morrell finds confusing.
"The fact that the Chinese continue to build up their arsenal across the Straits is somewhat confounding, given the fact there has been a lessening in tensions between the two governments, post the elections in Taiwan," he said.
The report says China is working to "deter, delay or deny" any U.S. intervention that might follow a Chinese attack on Taiwan. But it also indicates China would only invade if its leaders believed they had no other way to prevent the island from moving toward independence.
The report calls for more transparency in China's defense budget and more information about its strategic intentions, saying such an approach is "a responsibility that accompanies the accumulation of national power." The report says China has made "limited improvements" in that regard.
Spokesman Geoff Morrell says Defense Secretary Robert Gates believes more transparency and more U.S.-China military contact are the keys to preventing China's military rise from resulting in conflict.
"We could become adversaries if we allow ourselves to go down that path," he said. "The key is to prevent that from happening. Enhanced military-to-military relations, enhanced engagement, more dialogue, greater transparency is the key to avoiding that path."
China suspended military-to-military contacts with the United States to protest an arms sale to Taiwan last October. Morrell says in spite of the incident earlier this month, when five Chinese ships harassed the USNS Impeccable in international waters in the South China Sea, those contacts are still set to resume soon.
"There's reason for optimism," said Morrell. "Despite the Impeccable incident our talks, our military-to-military talks with the Chinese, have progressed faster and better than the secretary had expected."
The Pentagon report also laments continuing Chinese arms sales to unstable parts of the world, including Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Sudan. But the report welcomes increased Chinese involvement in international humanitarian relief operations and the anti-piracy effort off the east coast of Africa.
China typically criticizes the annual U.S. report, but Geoff Morrell says this year's report is more factual than opinionated, partly in order not to derail efforts to move forward in defense relations.
"This is a very straightforward, fact-based report," he said. "There is nothing inflammatory or derogatory in it. This is, actually, we hope, another step in the right direction in terms of fostering greater cooperation, greater understanding, greater transparency between our two militaries."
The next step in that process may come next week, when President Barack Obama has his first meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao during the G-20 summit in London.