WASHINGTON — China's military is closing technical gaps that long have given the United States and its allies a military edge in Asia, although several ambitious new weapons systems and platforms appear years from completion, according to a new Pentagon assessment.
China is developing a new stealth fighter, recently conducted sea trials on its first aircraft carrier and carried out a record number of satellite and other space launches in the last year , the report notes. It says China appears on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally focused military by 2020.
The pace and scope of China's drive has "allowed it to pursue capabilities that we believe are potentially destabilizing" and "may contribute to regional tensions and anxieties," Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense, said in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.
But China's People's Liberation Army may face difficulties trying to integrate new and complex weapons systems and capabilities into a military that has always relied on manpower, not technology, for national defense, the report adds.
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The Obama administration has maintained high-level contacts with China. Vice President Joe Biden completed a visit there this week, and Chinese President Hu Jintao came to Washington in January.
The report comes amid growing concern at the Pentagon over deep cuts in the U.S. defense budget. Defense officials have agreed to cut roughly $400 billion in spending over the next decade, but they worry that the Pentagon will be targeted for deeper cuts to help reduce the federal deficit.
The Pentagon's defenders in Congress have long cited China's military modernization as a potential threat to American interests and a reason not to cut the Pentagon budget.
The report warns that China's growing capabilities could allow it to project power in the Western Pacific in an effort to deny access to U.S. and allied naval vessels someday.
But China's first aircraft carrier is a decades-old former Soviet vessel, and the navy won't be able to fly fighter jets from its deck for years, the report says.
Schiffer said he believes Beijing is working toward building its own aircraft carriers, but the report notes that no domestically produced Chinese aircraft carrier could be operational before 2015, assuming construction began this year.
"Whether or not this 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," he added.
The new stealth fighter Beijing is developing, along with longer-range missiles, could give China the ability to strike air bases and other facilities in the region, but the advanced aircraft is still years away from completion, the report says.