WASHINGTON China appears on track to forge a modern military by 2020, a rapid buildup that could be potentially destabilizing to the Asia-Pacific region, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
Fueled by its booming economy, China's military growth in the past decade has exceeded most U.S. forecasts. Its aircraft carrier program, cyber warfare capabilities and anti-satellite missiles have alarmed neighbors and Washington.
Some China watchers, including members of the U.S. Congress, note with apprehension that rising Chinese defense spending coincides with Washington's plans for defense cuts.
"China clearly believes that it can capitalize on the global financial crisis," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon, adding the U.S. military presence in the Pacific must not be sacrificed in an attempt to control U.S. spending.
The U.S. Defense Department's annual assessment to Congress on the Chinese military flagged all the major concerns about China's growing military might, including Beijing's widening edge over Taiwan. It also noted cyber attacks in 2010 -- including those on U.S. government computers -- that appear to have originated in China.
"We have some concerns (on cyber) about some of the things that we've seen. And we want to be able to work through that with China," said Michael Schiffer, a deputy assistant secretary of defense.
The report focused on 2010, a year when the Pentagon said China's military modernization program paid "visible dividends." It cited China's fielding of an operational anti-ship ballistic missile, continued work on its aircraft carrier program and the completion of a prototype of China's first stealth fighter jet, the J-20.
The J-20 program, the Pentagon report said, would not achieve "effective operational capability" prior to 2018.
"Despite continued gaps in some key areas, large quantities of antiquated hardware and a lack of operational experience, the PLA (China's People's Liberation Army) is steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces," the report said.
A spokesman for China's embassy in Washington said the report was "a reflection of Cold War mentality" and would be used as a tool to depict China as a threat.
"We hope the U.S. will take practical steps to work with China for stable and healthy military ties by following the spirit of mutual respect, mutual trust, reciprocity and mutual benefit," embassy spokesman Wang Baodong said in an email.
The military buildup could have a destabilizing effect on the region, Schiffer said, calling for greater openness by the People's Liberation Army and more bilateral military dialogue.
"The pace and scope of China's sustained military investments have allowed China to pursue capabilities that we believe are potentially destabilizing to regional military balances," Schiffer said.
The Pentagon said despite its progress at becoming a more potent regional military power, Beijing was not expected to be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China before 2020.
That is something the United States, still the predominant military power in the Pacific, has been able to do throughout the world for decades.
One of the best ways for a military to project power is with aircraft carriers and China launched its first carrier -- a refitted former Soviet craft -- for a maiden run earlier this month. Schiffer said he believed Beijing was working toward building its own domestically produced aircraft carriers and sources told Reuters China was building two carriers.
Still, the report said any domestically produced Chinese aircraft carrier would not be operational until at least 2015, if construction were to start this year.
"Whether or not this (China's carrier program) proves to be a net plus for the region or for the globe or proves to be something that has destabilizing effects and raises blood pressure in various regional capitals I think remains to be seen," Schiffer said.
One of the biggest irritants in Sino-U.S. ties is Taiwan. The PLA suspended military ties with the United States for most of 2010 over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and warned that a renewed flurry of engagement could again be jeopardized by new arms sales to an island China sees as a renegade province.
Schiffer said the U.S. government has not yet made a decision on any new arms sales to Taiwan, comments echoed at the State Department.
A Reuters report this month said the U.S. sale of 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16 C/D fighter jets to Taiwan appeared unlikely.
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Bill Trott)