Beijing: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, on a mission to resuscitate moribund military relations with China, will not arrive in Beijing for talks with the nation's top military leaders until Sunday. But at an airfield in Chengdu, a metropolis in the nation's center, China's military leaders have already rolled out a welcome for him.
It is the J-20, a radar-evading jet fighter that has the same two angled tailfins that are the trademark of the Pentagon's own stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor. After years of top-secret development, the jet -- China's first stealth plane -- was put through what appear to be preliminary, but also very public, tests this week on the runway of the Aviation Design Institute in Chengdu, a site so open that aircraft enthusiasts often gather there to snap photos.
Some analysts say the timing is no coincidence. "This is their new policy of deterrence," Andrei Chang, the Hong Kong editor in chief of the Canadian journal Kanwa Defense Weekly, who reported the jet's tests, said Wednesday. "They want to show the U. S., show Mr. Gates, their muscle."
These days, there is more muscle to show. A decade of aggressive modernization of China's once creaky military is beginning to bear fruit, and both the Pentagon and China's Asian neighbors are increasingly taking notice.
By most accounts, China remains a generation or more behind the United States in military technology, and even further behind in deploying battle-tested versions of its most sophisticated naval and air capabilities. But after years of denials that it has any intention of becoming a peer military power of the United States, it is now unveiling capabilities that suggest that it intends, sooner or later, to be able to challenge American forces in the Pacific.
Besides the J-20, a midair-refuelable, missile-capable jet designed to fly far beyond Chinese borders, the Chinese are reported to be refitting a Soviet-era Ukrainian aircraft carrier -- China's first such power-projecting ship -- for deployment as soon as next year.
A spate of news reports allege that construction is already under way in Shanghai on one or more carriers; the military denied a similar report in 2006, but senior military officials have been more outspoken this year about China's desire to build the big ships. China could launch several carriers by 2020, the Pentagon stated in a 2009 report.
The military's nuclear deterrent, estimated by experts at no more than 160 warheads, has been redeployed since 2008 onto mobile launchers and advanced submarines that no longer are sitting ducks for attackers. Multiple-warhead missiles are widely presumed to come next. China's 60-boat submarine fleet, already Asia's largest, is being refurbished with super-quiet nuclear-powered vessels and a second generation of ballistic-missile-equipped subs.
And a widely anticipated antiship ballistic missile, called a "carrier-killer" for its potential to strike the big carriers at the heart of the American naval presence in the Pacific, appears to be approaching deployment. The head of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Robert F. Willard, told a Japanese newspaper in December that the weapon had reached "initial operational capability," an important benchmark. Navy officials said later that the Chinese had a working design but that it apparently had yet to be tested over water.
On that and other weaponry, China's clear message nevertheless is that its ability to deter others from territory it owns, or claims, is growing fast.
China, of course, has its own rationales for its military buildup. A common theme is that potentially offensive weapons like aircraft carriers, antiship missiles and stealth fighters are needed to enforce claims to Taiwan, should leaders there seek legal independence from the mainland.
Taiwan's current status, governed separately but claimed by China as part of its sovereign territory, is maintained in part by an American commitment to defend it should Beijing carry out an attack. Some experts date elements of today's military buildup from crises in the mid-1990s, when the United States sent aircraft carriers unmolested into waters around Taiwan to drive home Washington's commitment to the island.
Chinese officials also clearly worry that the United States plans to ring China with military alliances to contain Beijing's ambitions for power and influence. In that view, the Pentagon's long-term strategy is to cement in Central Asia the sorts of partnerships it has built on China's eastern flank in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
"Some Chinese scholars worry that the U. S. will complete its encirclement of China this way," said Xu Qinhua, who studies Russia and Central Asia at the Renmin University of China and advises government officials on regional issues. "We should worry about this. It's natural."
The Pentagon's official view has long been that it welcomes a stronger Chinese military as a partner with the United States to maintain open sea lanes, fight piracy and perform other international duties now shouldered -- and paid for -- by American service members and taxpayers.
But Chinese military leaders have seldom offered more than a glimpse of their long-term military strategy, and the steady buildup of a force with offensive abilities well beyond Chinese territory clearly worries American military planners.
"When we talk about a threat, it's a combination of capabilities and intentions," said Abraham M. Denmark, a former China country director in Mr. Gates's office. "The capabilities are becoming more and more clearly defined, and they're more and more clearly targeted at limiting American abilities to project military power into the western Pacific."
"What's unclear to us is the intent," he added. "China's military modernization is certainly their right. What others question is how that military power is going to be used."
Mr. Denmark, who now directs the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said China's recent strong-arm reaction to territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors had given both the Pentagon and China's neighbors cause for concern.
Still, a top Navy intelligence officer told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that the United States should not overestimate Beijing's military prowess and that China had not yet demonstrated an ability to use its different weapons systems together in proficient warfare. The officer, Vice Adm. David J. Dorsett, the deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance, said that although China had developed some weapons faster than the United States expected, he was not alarmed over all.
"Have you seen them deploy large groups of naval forces?" he said. "No. Have we seen large, joint, sophisticated exercises? No. Do they have any combat proficiency? No."
Admiral Dorsett said that even though the Chinese were planning sea trials on a "used, very old" Russian aircraft carrier this year and were intent on building their own carriers as well, they would still have limited proficiency in landing planes on carriers and operating them as part of larger battle groups at sea.
Little about China's military intentions is clear. The Pentagon's 2009 assessment of China's military strategy stated baldly that despite "persistent efforts," its understanding of how and how much China's government spends on defense "has not improved measurably."
In an interview on Wednesday, a leading Chinese expert on the military, Zhu Feng, said he viewed some claims of rapid progress on advanced weapons as little more than puffery.
"What's the real story?" he asked in a telephone interview. "I must be very skeptical. I see a lot of vast headlines with regards to weapons procurement. But behind the curtain, I see a lot of wasted money -- a lot of ballooning, a lot of exaggeration."
Mr. Zhu, who directs the international security program at Peking University, suggested that China's military establishment -- not unlike that in the United States -- was inclined to inflate threats and exaggerate its progress in a continual bid to win more influence and money for its favored programs.
And that may be true. If so, however, the artifice may be lost on China's cross-Pacific rivals.
"Ultimately, from a U. S. perspective it comes down to an issue of whether the United States will be as dominant in the western Pacific as we always have been," Bonnie Glaser, a China scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a telephone interview. "And clearly the Chinese would like to make it far more complicated for us."
"That's something the Chinese would see as reasonable," she said. "But from a U. S. perspective, that's just unacceptable."