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 US 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 US 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 US military capabilities would be under-funded.
US 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 US 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.
US 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.
"I think this is evolutionary, particularly the military to military side," Gates said.
"So rather than something dramatic, some kind of dramatic breakthrough, I think just getting some things started would be a positive outcome," he added, after having spoken at length about ways the US and China could improve dialogue.
Analysts warn that as China's military expands its reach, the risks of potentially dangerous misunderstandings between the US and Chinese militaries will increase.
That bolsters US arguments about the need for sustained US-China contacts that can endure friction over issues like Taiwan, as opposed to on-again, off-again contacts that have characterized the relationship for years.
Gates' visit comes a week before Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington, creating diplomatic momentum that US officials hope will allow Gates to make headway on sticky security issues.
"I think the Chinese' clear desire that I come first, come to China before President Hu goes to Washington, was an indication of their interest in strengthening this part of the relationship," Gates said.
He also praised China's efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula. As North Korea's main diplomatic and economic backer, China has been under pressure to rein in Pyongyang after the north was accused of sinking a South Korean warship and shelling a South Korean island last year.
"We recognize that China played a constructive role in lessening tensions on the peninsula in the latter part of last year," he said.