(Reuters) - The People’s Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde arrives in Washington D.C. on Sunday for a week-long trip to the United States, the highest level visit there by a Chinese uniformed military commander since 2009.
China’s ambitious military modernization program and growing defense spending has caused alarm around the region and in Washington.
Beijing in March said it would boost defense spending by 12.7 percent in 2011, for a total of 601.1 billion yuan ($92.5 billion) marking a return to double-digit growth.
China says it needs to upgrade its outmoded forces and that its plans are not a threat to any country, noting its defense budget is far lower than the United States.
Here are some facts about China’s defense capabilities, military modernization and some of the weapons systems that have attracted attention:
- In January, China confirmed it had held its first test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter jet, a show of muscle during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates aimed at defusing military tensions between the two powers.
- Some analysts have said the development of the J-20 is a strong sign that China is making faster-than-expected progress in developing a rival to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, the world’s only operational stealth fighter designed to evade detection by enemy radar.
- However, deployment is likely to be years away and Gates said ahead of his visit to China that he thought there was some question as to “just how stealthy” it really was.
- Along with the development of its aeronautics industry, China is developing a formidable design capacity. Its most advanced aircraft in service, and for the United States potentially the most threatening, are Russian Su-30 and Su-27 fighters.
- Modernization has also included developing in-flight refueling capacity to give its fighters a greater reach, and early warning aircraft.
- President Hu Jintao has made the navy’s modernization a priority. It is upgrading its destroyers and frigates to sail further and strike harder.
- China could launch its first aircraft carrier this year, according to Chinese military and political sources, a year earlier than U.S. military analysts had expected, underscoring its growing maritime power and assertiveness.
- The cost of building a medium-sized conventionally powered, 60,000-tonne carrier similar to the Russian Kuznetsov class is likely to be more than $2 billion. China is likely to acquire at least two.
- China is building new “Jin-class” ballistic missile submarines, capable of launching nuclear warheads while at sea. It has built a naval base on Hainan, the island-province in the south, that can serve submarines.
- U.S. officials have taken note of recent disclosures of advances in China’s capabilities, including in its anti-ship ballistic missile program, which could challenge U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
- The successful missile “kill” of an old satellite in early 2007 represented a new level of ability for the Chinese military, and in January last year China successfully tested emerging technology aimed at destroying missiles in mid-air.
- China has an estimated 1,400 missiles aimed at Taiwan, according to the Taipei government. China has vowed to bring the democratically ruled island under mainland rule, by force if necessary.
- China’s arsenal includes between 100 and 400 nuclear weapons, controlled by the Second Artillery Corps. China has pledged never to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Its deterrent force includes intercontinental ballistic missiles, and land- and submarine-based missiles.
- China is trying to transform the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army into a smaller, sleeker modern force capable of short, high-intensity conflicts against high-tech adversaries.
(Sources: Reuters, Chinese state media, International Institute for Strategic Studies, www.globalsecurity.org, U.S. Department of Defense) ($1 = 6.499 yuan)
Writing by Ben Blanchard, editing by Jonathan Thatcher