WASHINGTON U.S. military commanders are expressing confidence that they can hold their own in the face of faster-than-expected advances by China's military, but looming cost cuts are adding to doubts about the future of American power in the Pacific.
Fueled by its booming economy, China's military growth over the past decade has exceeded most U.S. forecasts. Its plans to develop aircraft carriers, anti-satellite missiles and other advanced systems have alarmed neighbors and Washington.
Critics, including within the U.S. Congress, note with apprehension that rising Chinese defense spending coincides with Washington's plans to scale back its budgets.
They accuse the Pentagon of appearing flat-footed in its response to China's military advances, like the development of a stealth fighter jet and a new missile that could challenge U.S. aircraft carriers.
"I think we're headed on the wrong track," Randy Forbes, a Republican lawmaker who is part of the Congressional China Caucus, told Reuters.
Experts agree that as China's military expands its reach, the risks of potentially dangerous misunderstandings between the U.S. and Chinese armed forces will increase.
But they are divided over whether China's rise necessarily means a decline in power for the U.S. military, or whether it can indefinitely preserve its edge through investments, technological advances and strengthened Asian alliances.
Moreover interdependence between the world's two largest economies creates little incentive for conflict, but regional frictions may ultimately prove the most likely spark for confrontation, experts say.
The debate over whether the United States can preserve its military advantage hits home for the U.S. Navy, which is tasked with preserving U.S. access to international waters around China that the People's Liberation Army appears intent on controlling.
In an interview from an office at the Washington Navy Yard, a military base in the nation's capital, the top Navy commander said the military had plans in place to cope with advances in China, and elsewhere. "We're not flat footed" in the response to China, Admiral Gary Roughead told Reuters.
"I would say that we are responding, or advancing, our capabilities in such a way that we're pacing the global developments that are taking place," he said.
"That includes Chinese advances, it includes developments that are taking place in other parts of the world as well."
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates added his voice to such assurances, saying the United States needed to "respond appropriately with our own programs" to Chinese advances.
Some analysts warn that the United States cannot hedge against every future Chinese capability in an era of tight spending. Then there are practical limitations of providing security in Asia.
"The problem is that for China, it's a home game. For us, it's an away game," said James Carafano, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.
"We've got this razor thin margin (of error) and they're assuming (at the Pentagon) they have perfect knowledge and know exactly what the Chinese are going to do."
ARE FEARS OVERBLOWN?
The core U.S. defense budget -- not including war funding -- was $530 billion in 2010. That's well beyond China's 532.1 billion yuan (about $80 billion) in official defense spending. Analysts believe that China's military spending is much higher than it publicly admits.
"The Chinese are not 10 feet tall," said Admiral Mike Mullen, who as chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff is the top U.S. military officer.
A top Chinese official acknowledged recently the United States will retain unchallengeable global dominance for at least two decades.
Still, analysts point out that Chinese advances in areas like cyber warfare could more quickly level the playing field. The U.S. military can invest heavily in new capabilities, but it will always have weaknesses that can be exploited.
A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said exercises and simulations conducted by the U.S. military have taken into account new technologies and capabilities in the region that could alter the status quo. The official declined to cite China specifically.
Pentagon officials, when asked about China, have pointed to a five-year budget plan that -- while lower than initially projected -- still invests heavily in new technologies like a new generation of long-range nuclear bombers, jammers and radar.
The U.S. military does not expect to build new bases in Asia in the near future but aims to "enhance" its presence in Southeast Asia while maintaining it in Northeast Asia, Gates said recently.
There are nearly 80,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan and South Korea alone. Gates recently warned an audience in Tokyo that China "might behave more assertively toward its neighbors" without the U.S. presence in Japan.
Gates, for one, has said he did not believe the United States and China are "inevitable strategic adversaries."
The United States and China are the world's two largest economies, and some analysts say their economic dependency and shared interest in global stability will over time smooth tensions -- and lower the risk of conflict.
"The Chinese do not want to go to war with us. They own too much of our debt, and rely too much on us for trade," said Chris Hellman of the nonprofit National Priorities Project.
But whether China's economic growth translates into better military relations remains an open question, particularly if Pentagon officials are correct in saying Beijing is developing arms specifically designed to counter U.S. capabilities.
China's navy has alarmed neighbors with aggressive behavior, and last year's flare-up of a territorial dispute over islands -- known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China -- set off alarms in the region.
"Are we heading toward a clash between the U.S. and China? I don't think so," U.S. Vice Admiral David Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, said in January.
"I would be more worried about an inadvertent tension, crisis, conflict over the Senkakus with the deployment of Chinese maritime-associated ships," he said.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)