BEIJING (Reuters) - China's state news agency on Thursday condemned a Pentagon report on China's growing military might, calling its account of Beijing's weapons modernization drive an alarmist "cock-and-bull story."
The Pentagon's annual assessment of China's military strength, which was released on Wednesday, said Beijing appeared to be on track to forge a modern military by 2020, a build-up that could destabilize the Asia-Pacific region.
The Chinese government has yet to give its official response, which is likely to be tersely dismissive, but the state-run Xinhua news agency made a starting shot.
"The allegation is an utterly cock-and-bull story about the Chinese military based on a wild guess and illogical reasoning," the English-language Xinhua commentary said.
"China, which has adhered to a defensive military policy, with its rising economic clout and sprawling commercial and strategic interests around the world, has every right to build a competent military," the commentary said.
The Pentagon's report was released days after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden finished a visit to China dominated by mutual vows of cooperation and goodwill. The annual quarrel over the Pentagon report could, at least briefly, dampen the upbeat tone set by Biden's visit, which focused on economic issues.
Fueled by China's booming economy, the People's Liberation Army's weapons upgrades in the past decade have exceeded many earlier U.S. forecasts. China's aircraft carrier program, cyber warfare capabilities and anti-satellite missiles have unsettled neighbors and Washington.
China, for its part, sees its military modernization as a rightful extension of its growing economic status, and it staunchly defends its military spending as defensive in nature.
Despite "large quantities of antiquated hardware and a lack of operational experience," the U.S. report said the People's Liberation Army is closing the technological gap with modern military forces.
The Pentagon flagged concerns about Beijing's widening military edge over Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China calls an illegitimate breakaway province.
China cut off ties with the U.S. military for most of last year to protest at an American arms package for Taiwan, but officials in Taiwan have been outspoken about their continued need of U.S. weapons and fighter jets.
"Mainland China has been increasing its military budget, widening the gap of the military forces between Taiwan and China. The U.S. is fully aware of the situation," Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense spokesman Luo Shou-he told Reuters.
"We have been asking the U.S. to sell Taiwan the F-16 C/D fighter aircraft and upgrade F-16 A/B ones over these years. We hope they will do it soon," Luo said.
The Pentagon on Wednesday said the U.S. government had still not made a decision on those arms sales, but sources have told Reuters they are unlikely to go through.
Xinhua called the Pentagon's conclusions "much ado about nothing," and said Chinese people thought it "baffling" that the U.S. could criticize China when its own military spending was 40 percent of the world's total in 2010.
China put its defense budget for 2011 at 601.1 billion yuan ($91.5 billion), up from 532.1 billion yuan last year, or a 12.7 percent increase. But many experts believe China's actual spending on the 2.3 million-strong PLA is far higher than what the government reports.
By comparison, the Pentagon rolled out a record base budget for fiscal year 2012 of $553 billion, up $22 billion from the level enacted for 2010.
Xinhua cited improving military ties between China and the U.S., a development it said should be embraced.
"The two countries should cherish their hard won improved bilateral ties, particularly the military relations, instead of blaming and smearing each other," the news agency said.
Additional reporting by Faith Hung in Taipei; Editing by Ken Wills and Alex Richardson