WASHINGTON, June 21 (UPI) -- China's rapid military expansion over recent years has sparked concern amongst American officials that its battlefield capabilities may eventually pose a threat to U.S. dominance.
Experts recently met at the Heritage Foundation to discuss the Pentagon's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review and its implications for the U.S. strategy with China.
The Pentagon report states, "Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages... The pace and scope of China's military build-up already puts regional military balances at risk."
Chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Larry Wortzel said, "The United States and Western countries in general face a concerted effort on the part of the Chinese military to build this new defense infrastructure, and they're pretty good at it."
Military modernization in China has accelerated since the 1990s. China has increased its defense spending by more than 10 percent in real terms every year except 2003 since 1996, the defense review says.
China's stated defense budget for 2006 increased by 15 percent from last year to $35 billion. However, the Pentagon report says that the actual budget is between $70 billion and $135 billion dollars.
But China lagged far behind the United States in the CIA's estimates of each country's military expenditures in 2005. The CIA estimates the United States spent over $518 billion last year, while China's estimated total hovered around $81 billion.
China cannot realistically catch up with the U.S. military budget, said Wang Yuan-kang, a professor at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. And America remains a larger economic force.
"China does not like American troops at its footsteps," Wang said, "and it wants to have a multi-power world but it cannot do it now because the United States is simply too powerful."
But the gap between America's dominance and China's power seems to be lessening.
The debate is no longer about whether China has the military strength to pose a threat, but what to do about it, said Daniel Blumenthal, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
"China is probably the only country in the world that can compete with the United States militarily and actually pose a challenge to its hegemony," Blumenthal said, pointing to what he called a serious peacetime military buildup by China over the last 10 years.
The United States has been shoring up its alliances around the region, he continued, with countries such as Japan, India, Vietnam and Mongolia all concerned about what China's military rise means.
Because of the nation's military expansion, intervention should China attack Taiwan can no longer be accomplished at a low cost, said Randall Schriver, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
And though China has been bulking up its military presence along borders near Taiwan, Schriver said that the nation's vision extends far beyond the small island to regional and global contingencies.
"The game is on in Asia, and the United States has to be engaged," Schriver said, emphasizing the growing global importance of Asia.
According to the National Intelligence Council, Schriver said, by 2020, Asia will hold 56 percent of the world's population, six of the 10 largest militaries, three of the four largest economies, and six of the 10 largest energy consumers. By contrast, Schriver added, the NIC expects the population of the Middle East to compose only 4 percent of the world's total in 2020.
"The whole center of gravity of the earth and human existence is moving to Asia," Schriver said, explaining that the United States needs a policy that will develop relations with the rest of Asia while confronting China. You get Asia right by getting China right and you get China right by getting Asia right, Schriver said.
Yet in an age of globalization, any moves by China or the United States would have grand influence in areas beyond the military.
"Economic setbacks and crises of confidence could slow China's emergence as a full-scale great power," the National Intelligence Council wrote in its 2020 Project report on global trends for the future. "Beijing's failure to maintain its economic growth would itself have a global impact."
The Census Bureau lists China as the United States' third largest trading partner in March 2006, the latest available month for data. In that month, China was the fourth largest importer of U.S. goods and the second largest exporter to America.