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Behind China's military buildup

world Updated: Oct 11, 2011 00:50 IST

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China's faster-than-expected military buildup has alarmed the United States and its Asian allies and could help the Pentagon gird against deeper defense cuts threatened in some corners of Congress.

But even though the sophistication of China's People's Liberation Army has exceeded US military forecasts, there is a recognition within the Pentagon that some of its most-cited conventional capabilities are still in their infancy.

China's first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet-era vessel known as the Varyag bought from the Ukraine, began sea trials in July. Chinese sources said Beijing is also building two indigenous carriers, a claim the US military believes is misleading at best.

Admiral Robert Willard, commander of US forces in the Pacific, told Reuters that while China might be pursuing procurement or some other embryonic action on an indigenous carrier, it would be premature to say "a keel is laid."

Not ten feet tall
Then there is question of China's stealth fighter jet, the J-20, which did its first test flight during a visit by the US defense secretary to China in January.

Despite the attention given to the J-20, the Pentagon does not expect it to achieve an effective operational capability before 2018.

There are also questions about how effective its stealth capability may be. The J-20's test flight proved its stealth design but did not reveal other attributes to help it avoid detection that might come later, sources say.

"China faces several hurdles as it moves toward J-20 production, including the mastery of high performance jet engine production," the Pentagon report said.

The United States has had a proper stealth fighter since Lockheed Martin's F-117 Nighthawk made its first flight 30 years ago. That aircraft was retired from service in 2007.

At the same time, the US military believes China appears on track to field a modern, regionally focused military by 2020. A comprehensive strategy to maintain the US edge in the Pacific will require investment, a tough challenge in an era of budget cuts.

The Pentagon now counts a base budget, excluding war costs, of over half a trillion dollars. China downplays its defense spending but acknowledged in March a 12.7% rise in 2011 defense outlays to 600 billion yuan ($94 billion).

The US military's estimates of China offer a more mixed view. This year's assessment noted China's lack of operational experience and large amounts of antiquated hardware but said the PLA was "steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces."

Dean Cheng, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington, said future Chinese advances like improvements in its anti-ship ballistic missile would influence US risk assessments when deploying near its shores.

That is not to say China will be able to flat-out deny US access to nearby waters any time soon.

"China is on the march in Asia, and its primary target remains democratic Taiwan," said the House Foreign Relations Committee's chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Dorsett noted China's global aspirations are longer term, seeking to turn its navy into a global power "by the middle years of this century."

"That's their timeline," he said. "Should we expect them to be much more competent 10 years from now than they are today? As long as their economy's robust, absolutely."