In nearly every aspect of military capability — from cruise missiles to submarines, satellites to cluster bombs — China has been working hard to modernize its military. Some see this as a natural result of China's emergence as a rising power, while others see danger to the United States and its interests in Asia.
The evidence of China's military modernization is ample: double-digit increases for military spending since 1989; the rapid expansion of China's cruise and ballistic missile force and the deployment of hundreds of missiles along China's coast across from Taiwan; the rapid expansion of China's submarine force and the modernization of the missiles those submarines carry; and last year, China's destruction of one of its own satellites by a land-based missile, announcing China's unexpected capability in anti-satellite warfare.
There is no doubt that China is a rising military power, says Kurt Campbell, a former Defense Department official who now heads the Center for a New American Security.
"No country has risen to a status of great power as rapidly as China has, I would argue, over the last 20 years," Campbell says.
Cause for Alarm?
With its rapidly expanding economy, its growing thirst for energy and its own perception of itself as an emerging power, it makes perfect sense that China should modernize its military capabilities, says Ralph Cossa, director of the Pacific Forum, a think tank in Honolulu.
"They want to have a force commensurate with their political and economic standing in the world, and we shouldn't be surprised by that. And we shouldn't necessarily be frightened by that," he says.
Still, some in the United States are frightened. They see China's expansion of its military as a direct challenge to the United States. Just peruse the titles of several new books: The Coming War with China, Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States and China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future.
Susan Shirk is not among the alarmists. But in her recently published book, China: Fragile Superpower, Shirk writes: "History teaches us that rising powers are likely to provoke wars."
"Let's remember why they provoke war," she says. "They provoke war because of the reaction of the present-day powers, and not only because of their own behavior. And I have to say that there are reasons to be worried on both scores."
Perhaps no one knows more right now about China's military, and especially its naval capabilities, than Adm. Timothy Keating, head of Pacific Command, based in Honolulu. It's his job to watch China's military. He's been to China several times, seen its weapons systems up close and talked with China's military leaders.
He admits China is developing impressive military capabilities, but "the Chinese are behind us," he says. "Unmistakably, they know it. In their words — I'm quoting some of them — they're 25 years behind us."
One of the reasons that some analysts in the United States are so concerned about China's military development is that it is, in part, hidden. Chinese leaders have not explained why they shot down their own satellite last year, why a Chinese submarine last year shadowed the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, or why they talk about acquiring aircraft carriers of their own.
But, Keating says, little by little, China is becoming more transparent about its military.
"Increased transparency can yield to greater trust," he says. "That reduces the potential for misunderstanding. Misunderstanding can lead to conflict or crisis."
No area is more fraught with potential conflict for China and the United States than Taiwan, which China regards as part of its territory. Taiwan's recent presidential election — won by a candidate who wants to improve relations with the mainland — may go a long way to cooling potential conflict there.
But Shirk says China's military modernization has been all about Taiwan and denying the United States military access to it and the surrounding area in case conflict breaks out.
"They want us to really think twice about confronting China's military power in such a contingency," she says.
China does have the capacity to threaten the actual homeland of the United States: It possesses 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles that carry nuclear warheads and could reach the country. But these missiles are not on high alert, and the warheads are stored separately.
Although China is modernizing these missiles, it believes its nuclear arsenal is a minimal deterrent, and in recent years it has not modified that doctrine.
Campbell says he believes that with the United States focused primarily on the Middle East, recent administrations have not paid enough attention to what is going on with China's military.
"It's not, I think, any outward and, you know, specific steps that China has taken that are cause for immediate American concern," he says. "But it is a pattern of very substantial steps that have led to a rather sharp increase in Chinese power."
China's recent unrestrained crackdown in Tibet adds another element to an understanding of China's military. The People's Liberation Army is used not only against foreign threats but also against internal challenges as China's communist leadership sees them.
In order to maintain the PLA's loyalty to the civilian leadership, Shirk says she believes the military demands and gets its way on military spending. She sees that "as a reflection of China's internal weakness, and that they need to satisfy the military in order to keep the Communist Party in power."
That's why Shirk calls China a "fragile superpower," and the events in Tibet are the most recent evidence of just that.