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The folks who predict that China will soon be ruling the world got new ammunition this past week. First came the news that its economic output has, for the first time, surpassed that of Japan and is now second only to the United States. Then came a Pentagon report that China is using its growing wealth to develop its military might. Taken together, the reports underscore how quickly China has emerged as a serious rival to the United States.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: China's been gaining on Japan for years and as it has grown, the country has become aggressive in asserting its interests. And yet, Chinese leaders did not exactly trumpet the news that they had overtaken Japan. Instead, a government spokesman was quick to point out that China is still a poor, developing country.

Eswar Prasad of Cornell University says the Chinese have reasons for not wanting to call too much attention to their economic status.

Professor ESWAR PRASAD (Cornell University): Being (unintelligible) as one of the key economic powers in the world also brings with it a great number of responsibilities. And their feeling is that given their level of development with a per capita income that is less than one-tenth that of the U.S., that they are really not in the position to shoulder some of these responsibilities yet.

GJELTEN: Responsibilities like showing leadership on climate change issues or promoting freer trade, both areas where China has been slow to cooperate. David Finkelstein is a former U.S. defense attache in Beijing.

Mr. DAVID FINKELSTEIN (Center for Naval Analyses): The Chinese have a great track record in demanding to be treated as a great power and a mixed record in acting like one.

GJELTEN: The new Pentagon report suggests that China wants first to establish itself as a dominant regional power against potential rivals like Japan or South Korea. In the Pentagon's terms, the Chinese military is pursuing anti-access and area denial strategies. David Finkelstein, now at the Center for Naval Analyses, says this means keeping U.S. and other foreign forces away from Chinese waters.

Mr. FINKELSTEIN: One of the mission that the Chinese navy and the Chinese air force has been given has been to extend China's defensive perimeter out to sea eastward.

GJELTEN: New Chinese submarines are being equipped with missiles capable of destroying aircraft carriers anywhere in the western Pacific. At the same time, China is locking up oil supplies and other resources needed to fuel its economy, looking especially to nearby countries like Iran and Afghanistan. Cornell's Eswar Prasad, formerly the top China specialist at the IMF, travels to China regularly.

Mr. PRASAD: They do intend to become very dominant in the region, and they see economic, political and military issues as all intertwined in terms of trying to obtain their longer term objectives.

GJELTEN: International law normally gives countries domain only over sea waters within 12 miles. But China claims sovereignty up to 300 miles. Other Asian countries, with U.S. support, are now pushing back. But James Mulvenon, a China expert at the Defense Group Consultancy, says China is, if anything, expanding its claims.

Mr. JAMES MULVENON (China Expert, Defense Group Consultancy): Beijing's statements about the Yellow Sea, as well as their sovereignty in the southern part of the China Sea, reflect a new, even more expanded view of their sovereignty. And weve been very clear, I think, to say that we reject that definition and that we are going to deliberately reassert our ability to operate freely in those areas.

GJELTEN: If there is to be a U.S.-China military conflict in the coming years, it most likely would be a naval confrontation in the China Sea. Meanwhile, China's beginning to boost its military presence in distant corners. The Pentagon report highlighted China's role in anti-piracy operations near Somalia.

Last year, the country carried out a military medical exercise in Gabon. Nothing big - just enough, says David Finkelstein, to bolster China's global military profile.

Mr. FINKELSTEIN: They're going to be out there showing the flag - Horn of Africa, Indian Ocean, other places. We're going to have to get used to that.

GJELTEN: Still, China's not about to rule the world any time soon. It still has huge internal challenges to deal with - widespread poverty and an unbalanced economy that depends way too much on other countries continuing to buy Chinese goods.

But China's military and economic development over the past decade has been dramatic, and it is destined to be a dominant 21st century player.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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