China Seeks Military Power in Indian Ocean, Western Pacific, Pentagon Says

China is pursuing military capability to operate as far as the Indian Ocean and further into the Pacific, as the country’s growing demand for oil and natural gas makes strategic sea routes more important, the Pentagon said.

New weapons and carriers give China an increasing ability to operate far afield, and it continues a military buildup opposite Taiwan even with improved economic ties across the strait, the U.S. Defense Department said in an annual report to Congress released yesterday.

The report outlines China’s use of naval forces, ballistic missiles and air power to extend its influence to areas where the U.S. also is seeking more and stronger alliances.

The navy of the People’s Liberation Army is investing in nuclear-powered submarines and its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Russian vessel, “to support additional missions beyond a Taiwan contingency,” according to the report. The force may add as many as five advanced nuclear-powered attack submarines.

The U.S. assessment coincides with China surpassing Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. Japan’s nominal gross domestic product for the second quarter totaled $1.288 trillion, less than China’s $1.337 trillion, the Japanese Cabinet Office said yesterday.

The same economic advances “have also enabled China to embark on a comprehensive transformation of its military,” the Defense Department reported. China announced in March it plans to raise defense spending by 7.5 percent this year, after increases of at least 10 percent annually for the past decade.

Energy Needs

China’s growth means its future energy needs can be met only by supplies from the Persian Gulf, Africa and North America, according to the Pentagon study. Such supply points will keep China reliant on maritime transport even as it seeks to develop pipelines to avoid sensitive sea routes such as the Strait of Malacca.

“Pipeline projects, for example, will do little to minimize Beijing’s vulnerability in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of China’s crude oil imports transited in 2008,” the Pentagon said. “This percentage is expected to rise.”

China’s military reach beyond its region is reflected in its participation in joint anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. That mission marked the first deployments other than occasional ship visits outside China’s immediate Pacific region.

The People’s Liberation Army isn’t “solely a local force anymore,” Dean Cheng, an analyst for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, wrote in an e-mail. The phenomenon has emerged over two decades and raises the question of how the U.S. will respond, he said.

Frog in Pot

“Like the proverbial frog in the pot, have we become so accustomed to expanding Chinese capabilities that we think we can afford to ignore them,” Cheng wrote, in commenting on the Pentagon report.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton said the absence of explanations for China’s military expansion raises “a dangerous risk that miscommunication and misperception between the U.S. and China could lead to a miscalculation.” The two countries don’t necessarily need to view each other as threats, he said.

“Yet, conflict between our nations remains a possibility,” said Skelton, a Missouri Democrat. “We must remain prepared for whatever the future holds.”

Cruise Missile

The Chinese Air Force is developing longer-range versions of a bomber that can be equipped with a land-attack cruise missile, the Pentagon said.

The weapons would extend China’s operational abilities to a chain of islands in the western Pacific that the country considers as a kind of second defensive perimeter, extending from off Japan’s eastern coast, west and south through the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Palau to Indonesia, according to the report.

The U.S. has spotlighted Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi sparred last month over China’s claims to sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea. The area is bordered by countries including Vietnam, which is increasing defense ties with the U.S.

Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said the Pentagon report exaggerates China’s military strength and intentions.

“China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and in the world at large,” Wang said.

Chinese Aims

The China report illustrates the limited success that President Barack Obama’s administration has had in curbing China’s military expansion or encouraging the nation’s leaders to reveal more about their aims.

The administration sought to improve defense links soon after entering office in 2009 by persuading China to resume military talks cut off after an October 2008 announcement of a U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan. China considers Taiwan as breakaway territory that should be unified with the mainland by force if necessary.

Chinese leaders shunned the talks again in the wake of a planned U.S. arms sale of $6.4 billion to Taiwan announced in January and later rescinded an invitation for a visit from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Taiwan has said it needs the weapons to give it the strength and confidence to pursue improved ties with China such as a trade agreement signed on June 29.

China is “developing the capability to deter Taiwanese independence or influence Taiwan to settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms,” the Pentagon said in the report. “The balance of cross-strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.”

The report cited a range of 1,050 to 1,150 missiles stationed opposite the island, the same unclassified tally as in 2008. Still, the Chinese have improved the effectiveness of the weapons, the Pentagon reported.

China “is upgrading the lethality of this force, including by introducing variants of these missiles with improved ranges, accuracies and payloads,” according to the study.

To contact the reporters on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net; Anthony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net.

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