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China challenges U.S. edge in Asia-Pacific
Beijing’s military buildup spooks its neighbors
Things do not seem so one-sided any more.
China's military has been on a spending spree at a time that the debt-ridden U.S. government is looking to cut defense costs. Last week, China announced a 12.7 percent increase for this year, the latest in a string of double-digit increases.
That trend has triggered worries in Congress and among security analysts about whether the United States can maintain its decades-long military predominance in the economically crucial Asia-Pacific region.
While the U.S. military has been drained by 10 years of costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, China has developed air, naval and missile capabilities that could undercut U.S. superiority in China’s backyard.
China is still decades away from building a military as strong as the United States. It has not fought a major conflict since a border war with Vietnam in 1979 and is not a Soviet-style rival threatening American soil.
However, the shift raises questions about whether the United States can meet its commitment to maintaining a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific for decades to project global power, safeguard shipping lanes vital for world trade and protect regional allies.
China already has an innate geographical advantage in any conflict in the western Pacific. One expert speculated that, with its military buildup, China could conquer Taiwan by the end of the decade, even if the U.S. military intervened.
But China’s assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea has spooked its neighbors and fortified their support for a strong U.S. presence in the region. Even former enemy Vietnam is forging military ties with the United States.
Last week, the Philippines deployed two warplanes after a ship searching for oil complained it was harassed by two Chinese patrol boats in the South China Sea. Japan scrambled F-15 fighter jets after Chinese surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft flew near disputed islands in the East China Sea.
“As China's military has gotten more capable, and China has behaved more aggressively, a number of countries are looking at the U.S. as a hedge to make sure they can maintain independence, security and stability,” said Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
But those allies question whether the United States can retain its freedom to operate in the region, and whether its economy - highly indebted to China and struggling to recover from a recession - can sustain its high level of military spending, said Bonnie Glaser of the Center of Strategic and International Studies.
The U.S. Pacific Command has 325,000 personnel, five aircraft-carrier strike groups, 180 ships and nearly 2,000 aircraft. Tens of thousands of forces stay on China’s doorstep at long-established bases in South Korea and Japan.
China’s defense spending is still dwarfed by the United States. Even if China really invests twice as much in its military as its official $91.5 billion budget, that would still be only about a quarter of U.S. spending. It has no aircraft carriers and lags the United States in defense technology. Some of its most vaunted recent military advances will take years to reach operation.
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