The United States will enhance its own capabilities in response to China’s growing military muscle, Defense chief Robert Gates said on Saturday, as he to flew to Beijing for talks with China’s political and military leaders.
As its economy booms, China has significantly increased investment in its military, and its faster-than-expected advances in its ballistic missile, combat aircraft and other strategic programs have raised eyebrows in the United States.
Gates acknowledge that some of China’s advances, if confirmed, could eventually undermine traditional U.S. military capabilities in the Pacific region.
“They clearly have the potential to put some of our capabilities at risk and we have to pay attention to them. We have to respond appropriately with our own programs,” Gates told reporters.
“My hope is that through the strategic dialogue that I’m talking about, that maybe the need for some of these capabilities is reduced.”
Gates cited a five-year budget outline that he unveiled on Thursday as an example of how the U.S. military would maintain its edge. It included funding for a new generation of long-range nuclear bombers, new electronic jammers and radar, and new satellite launch technology.
But critics in Congress seized upon the budget outline’s $78 billion in overall defense spending cuts as a sign that key U.S. military capabilities would be under-funded.
U.S. officials have taken note of disclosures in recent weeks of advances in China’s capabilities, including in its anti-ship ballistic missile program, which could challenge U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
“I’ve been concerned about the development of the anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles ever since I took this job,” Gates said. He added China appeared “fairly far along” with its anti-ship ballistic missile but he said he did not know if it was operational yet.
China may also be ready to launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011, faster than some estimates, and new photos indicate it has a prototype of a stealth fighter jet.
Still, Gates appeared to play down the Chinese program. Asked about its prototype, he said: “I think there is some question about just how stealthy” it is.
NO DRAMATIC BREAKTHROUGHS
The stated goal of Gates’ Jan 9-12 trip to China is to improve relations with China’s military.
U.S. and Chinese military ties were suspended through most of 2010, as Beijing protested President Barack Obama’s proposed arms sale to Taiwan. His trip to China is the most visible demonstration that relations have normalized.
Gates said he did not expect any dramatic breakthrough in relations with China’s military during the visit, saying an improvement in ties was more likely to be gradual.