Defense official: China’s military buildup could prove ‘destabilizing’ for region

China’s military is "steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces" in a buildup that could prove "destabilizing" to the region, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

The Defense Department's annual report to Congress on Beijing's military notes Chinese leaders are driving hard toward achieving a set of “economic and military benchmarks” by the end of this decade, and concludes Beijing’s ultimate goal is to become “a world-class economic and military power by 2050.”

The 2011 report was delivered to Capitol Hill and publicly released Wednesday, more than 170 days after it was due.

In the report, the Pentagon says China is increasingly confident of its position on the world stage. 

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“Although [Chinese] leaders remain concerned over a number of economic challenges, many analysts have suggested that China’s economic performance in recent years has endowed Beijing with greater confidence in its economic model and in its relative strength,” the report states.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Michael Schiffer said Wednesday that China this year will continue a long trend of annually increasing its military spending, this time by 12.7 percent over the 2010 level.

U.S. officials are not concerned about any single weapon system China is developing, Schiffer said. Rather, they are alarmed by the scope and track of the military buildup, Schiffer told reporters during a Pentagon briefing.

The buildup could end up being a “destabilizing” force in the Asia-Pacific region, he said. 

Beijing, over the next decade, will field a number of combat systems that are “on par with” or will “exceed global standards,” Schiffer said. 

The Pentagon report noted China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has some “gaps in some key areas” — such as a large amount of “antiquated hardware” and an overall lack of operational experience — but said the modernization of its military is progressing.

“Militarily, China’s sustained modernization program is paying visible dividends,” the report states. “During 2010, China made strides toward fielding an operational anti-ship ballistic missile, continued work on its aircraft carrier program, and finalized the prototype of its first stealth aircraft.”

Schiffer said Pentagon analysts believe China’s goal is to build “a regionally focused military by 2020,” adding the Asian behemoth is “on track” to achieve that.

That finding could become fuel for congressional hawks — mostly Republicans in the House, who point to China as the main reason annual Defense Department budgets must continue to grow. 

Their calls for that sustained growth comes even as a congressional supercommittee attempts to enact large federal spending cuts to help pare the $14 trillion U.S. debt.

Hawkish Republican Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, raised concerns Wednesday about two of the Pentagon's findings.

"First, Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and military capabilities, particularly China’s ability to deny access to the western Pacific, is of growing concern not only to the United States but to China’s neighbors, leading to changes in the military posture of regional actors," McKeon said in a statement. "This has significant consequences for the security and stability of the region.

"Second, China clearly believes that it can capitalize on the global financial crisis, using the United States’ economic uncertainty as a window of opportunity to strengthen China’s economic, diplomatic, and security interests," McKeon said. “Therefore, security in the Pacific could be further jeopardized if our regional allies also come to believe that the United States will sacrifice the presence and capability of the U.S. military in an attempt to control spending. This is an unacceptable outcome in such a vital region of the globe.”

During the Pentagon briefing, Schiffer said the report's authors did not focus on economic issues because those issues are overseen by other U.S. government entities.

During the first decade of the 21st century, Beijing’s military buildup was focused mainly on buying and developing combat hardware, the DOD report noted.

But the PLA’s focus in the century’s second decade will shift to training troops and integrating those new platforms into its force.

“Senior PRC [People's Republic of China] leaders recognize that this period will prove critical to meeting the PLA’s modernization objectives, and they have demanded that the military engage in more realistic training and organizational reform,” the Pentagon report noted.

A large focus of the Chinese buildup has been on its fleet of war ships, including aircraft carriers, which has garnered ample Pentagon attention.

Schiffer confirmed media accounts from Aug. 10 that reported an aircraft carrier Beijing bought from Russia, formerly called the Varyag by the Soviet military, already is conducting those trials.

But the PLA navy is expected to soon begin work on a totally Chinese aircraft carrier, according to DOD.

“China could begin construction of a fully indigenous carrier in 2011, which could achieve operational capability after 2015,” the report concluded. “China likely will build multiple aircraft carriers with support ships over the next decade.”

While work on the carrier is reportedly just beginning, it will “take years” for Chinese personnel and tactics to evolve into an effective carrier-based force, Schiffer told reporters.

The carrier development program is part of a broader effort by the PLA to project its forces further from Chinese soil. 

Such hardware programs “will lay the foundation for a force able to accomplish a broader set of regional and global objectives,” the Pentagon report noted.

“However, it is unlikely that China will be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China prior to 2020,” it stated.

Another area of conflict on which China is focused is cyberspace, the Pentagon concluded.

U.S. officials have “some concerns” about China’s online ambitions, Schiffer said.

“In 2010, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. Government, were the target of intrusions, some of which appear to have originated within [China],” DOD found. “These intrusions were focused on exfiltrating information. Although this alone is a serious concern, the accesses and skills required for these intrusions are similar to those necessary to conduct computer network attacks.”

The Pentagon concluded that “developing capabilities for cyberwarfare is consistent with authoritative PLA military writings.”

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“Cyberwarfare capabilities could serve PRC military operations in three key areas,” according to the report. “First and foremost, they allow data collection through exfiltration. Second, they can be employed to constrain an adversary’s actions or slow response time by targeting network-based logistics, communications, and commercial activities. Third, they can serve as a force multiplier when coupled with kinetic attacks during times of crisis or conflict.”

While much has been made about China’s quest to become a global superpower, partly through military might, the Pentagon says Taiwan continues to drive the country’s military planning. 

“Throughout the PLA’s modernization drive, Taiwan contingency planning has largely dominated the agenda,” the report stated. “Even though cross-strait tensions have subsided since 2008, Taiwan remains a critical mission, and the PLA continues building capabilities aimed not only at Taiwan, but also to deter, delay or deny possible U.S. or allied intervention in a cross-strait conflict.”

But as relations between the Asian neighbors have warmed, the PLA has been able to “devote attention to an expanding set of regional and global missions. This includes a focus on safeguarding China’s expanding national interests and protecting sovereignty.”

Finally, Chinese military leaders know their force has vulnerabilities — and they are turning to asymmetric means to balance those out.

“Despite significant improvements, the PLA continues to face deficiencies in inter-service cooperation and actual experience in joint exercises and combat operations,” the Pentagon concluded. “Recognizing these shortcomings, China’s leaders continue to stress asymmetric strategies to leverage China’s advantages while exploiting the perceived vulnerabilities of potential opponents.”

Insurgents in Iraq, as well as Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, have used so-called asymmetric weapons like improvised explosive devices to fight technologically superior U.S. and allied forces.

—This story was originally posted at 2 p.m. and most recently updated at 5 p.m.