China challenges U.S. edge in Asia-Pacific

Beijing’s military buildup spooks its neighbors

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For example, China test-flew its stealth fighter in January, months earlier than U.S. intelligence expected, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says China will still only have a couple of hundred of these “fifth-generation” jets by 2025. The United States should have 1,500 by then.

China’s growing array of aircraft, naval and submarine vessels, ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-satellite and cyberwar capabilities already enable it to project power beyond its shores. It plans new submarines, larger naval destroyers and transport aircraft that could expand that reach further.

Roger Cliff, a respected defense researcher who recently testified before a congressional hearing on China, said many of the missiles and strike aircraft have a range of about 900 miles, which put them within attacking distance of virtually all U.S. air and naval bases in the region.

They include the DF-21D missile, which is designed to target aircraft carriers. It employs technology that no other U.S. rival has mastered.

Mr. Cliff said if trends continue, China should have sufficient missiles and precision bombs by the end of the decade to render inoperable for a week or more all airfields on Taiwan and U.S. air bases in Okinawa, Japan, and possibly others farther away.

He said China has between 40 and 50 air bases within 500 miles of Taiwan, each generally hosting a squadron of 24 aircraft, which could overwhelm superior U.S. aircraft through sheer numbers. If China acquired amphibious landing vehicles, he forecast it could conquer Taiwan.

If U.S. military planners are worried about that possibility, they are not showing it. They say plans to cap defense spending within five years will not derail modernization plans. Pacific Command chief Adm. Robert Willard said last month that, while the United States carefully watches China’s growing military capabilities - and urges greater openness from China about them - the United States does not need to change its strategy.

China maintains it does not have offensive intentions, and analysts say that military action in the region would hurt its export-driven economy, which could threaten what its government prizes above all else - domestic stability. The U.S. military presence also may benefit China as it restrains neighbors like South Korea and Japan from seeking nuclear weapons.

As U.S. and Chinese forces increasingly rub up against each other in the western Pacific, the United States says it wants to promote military ties with China to prevent a chance skirmish and for China to develop as a “responsible major power.” To date, China has been reluctant to engage meaningfully after the recent restoration of military ties that were cut over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

“This is not the Cold War with two rival camps facing each other,” said Michael Schiffer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia. “We are seeking a military-to-military relationship that is broad and deep enough to manage our differences while expanding on areas of common interest.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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