Pentagon Report on Chinese Military Delayed

The Pentagon's annual assessment of China's military capabilities was due in March. But this year, as in previous years, the deadline has slipped as various government agencies try to reach consensus. That issue is particularly sensitive this year because of tensions between Washington and Beijing over a variety of issues, including a military buildup by China.

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US military officials are trying to work out how much they should be concerned about Vietnam's giant neighbor. The Pentagon has been working on its annual assessment of China's military capabilities, and as in previous years, the report is now overdue. It is not easy to agree on the potential threat from what some see as the rising power in Asia. NPR's Vicky O'Hara is covering the story.

And, Vicky, what makes it so hard?

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

Well, there is always some disagreement within the administration over how to interpret the data on China. People at the Pentagon say that there isn't really a fight, just the normal give and take that you have when you're trying to accommodate the views of different agencies. People on Capitol Hill, who are waiting for this report, say they understand that there has been quite a disagreement over how to interpret the data on China's military buildup; in other words, how much of a threat it poses.

According to China's own official figures, it has doubled its defense spending in the last five years. Now that still leaves China way behind the United States on military spending, but China unquestionably has embarked on a major military modernization program, and some analysts also have questioned some of the language in the Pentagon's draft report that got quite specific about various scenarios for dealing with Taiwan. That's in the event of a confrontation between Taiwan and China. But the one thing everyone in the administration seems to agree on, and this is important, is that China's military buildup is of great concern to the United States.

INSKEEP: Vicky, why is this report getting so much attention this year?

O'HARA: There's a lot of friction between Washington and Beijing at the moment, over currency and trade disputes. Congress has started weighing in on this. For example, a large group of US senators is threatening to slap tariffs on Chinese imports unless China revalues its currency. Another big rift in the relationship between the two governments occurred in the spring when Washington convinced the European Union to drop plans to lift its long-standing arms embargo against China. That really upset the Chinese, but the dispute also had the effect of making people within the Bush administration take a much closer look at China's military capability. Then you add to the mix the fact that Washington is trying to convince Beijing to do more to help resolve the nuclear impasse with North Korea. So there are a lot of competing interests at work here, and China is going to be extremely sensitive to what this report says.

INSKEEP: And we're also talking here--Are we not?---about one of the major debates that plays out in foreign policy circles, foreign policy journals, and that's how worried we should be about China 10 years from now, 20 years from now or 30 years from now.

O'HARA: That's right, and the report in the past hasn't gotten into in great detail, you know, what's going to happen or what the Chinese will be doing by the year 2020. This report is expected to devote much more attention to that issue, and it's expected to be more harsh than previous assessments of China's capability. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Donald Rumsfeld, made that pretty clear when he was in Singapore recently. He said that China has developed the capability to project force beyond its borders. Rumsfeld also questioned why China needs a military buildup. In fact, he said that China doesn't need that kind of military because, in his estimation, China has no enemies. That, of course, outraged the Chinese, who said they have every right to modernize their military.

China, by its own admission, is spending a lot of money on new defense technology, and a defense consultant who's familiar with the Pentagon's upcoming report describes this as the most negative unclassified document on China that the US government has produced. Another analyst who's following the interagency discussion of the issue says the report is going to be grim, but only, he says, because the facts on the ground are so grim.

INSKEEP: Vicky, thanks very much.

O'HARA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Vicky O'Hara, covering Pentagon efforts to gauge the military power of China.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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