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China's Military Threat In Focus After Naval Incident

China's military power is so much on the rise that it's shifting the military balance in the region and beyond, according to a new Pentagon report.

The annual assessment of China's strength may attract more attention than usual after a recent naval confrontation in the South China Sea. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair calls the incident — in which five Chinese ships surrounded the USNS Impeccable this month in the waters off Hainan Island — the "most serious" military dispute between the two countries since 2001.

Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command, called it a sign that the "relationship certainly isn't where we want it to be." He says that "China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive, troublesome manner, and they're not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior or rules of the road."

The new Pentagon report, required by Congress and released Wednesday, was in the works well before the Impeccable encounter and never actually mentions it. But it does point to other developments.

China continues to produce weapons that could threaten Taiwan, including building up short-range missiles opposite the island, according to the report. That finding comes despite the conclusion that the overall security situation in the Taiwan Strait has improved in the past year.

The Pentagon also says China is expanding its nuclear, space and cyberwarfare capabilities, and that it is trying to project its military muscle increasingly farther afield.

But Nina Hachigian, an Asia expert at the Center for American Progress, says Americans should take a deep breath before getting too worked up about a sinister Sino-rival.

"They've had, for example, no combat experience whatsoever since 1979," Hachigian says. "You know, even if you take the very highest estimate of what China might be spending on its military, it's still — I think it's less than a quarter of ours."

She says China is still decades away from directly challenging U.S. military pre-eminence in any way.

The Pentagon report also notes some positive consequences of China's military might, such as disaster relief. It took just 10 hours for China to shift 20,000 troops and armed police to Sichuan province last year after the devastating earthquake. And overseas, Chinese ships have joined the international coalition fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Keating says it's hard to reconcile the helpful cooperation on Somalia with what he calls China's "illegal, irresponsible" behavior in the South China Sea. "It's conflicting to us. And it's confusing. And this goes to the root issue of what are really their intentions? What is their strategic intent?" he says.

China's behavior may be confusing, but it shouldn't be surprising, says Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations. He says China has good reason to keep the U.S. in the dark about its ultimate plans.

"For the Chinese, they see themselves as the weaker power. And they believe that for weaker powers, a certain degree of opaqueness makes a great deal of sense strategically, right?" Segal says. "You don't want the larger power to know what you do or don't have, or what you are or are not capable of."

The Pentagon report concludes that much uncertainty surrounds China's future, particularly regarding how it will choose to use its military power.

Blair, the U.S. intelligence chief, puts it this way: The debate is still on as to whether, as Chinese military power increases, "it will be used for good or for pushing people around."

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