The US said at the weekend it would respond to the rapidly-increasing military capabilities of China by building up its own strength in the region.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, was speaking as he arrived in Beijing on Sunday for four days of talks aimed at renewing ties between the US and Chinese armed forces. However his visit has been overshadowed by a series of announcements by the Chinese about the growing strength of their missile technology, naval capabilities and other defence initiatives.
The visit is the first by a US defence secretary since 2000, and comes at a time of heightened tension in the region. It is also almost one year after China suspended military contacts with Washington following arms sales to Taiwan.
With relations between North and South Korea at their lowest point in decades, Beijing has been angered by joint US-South Korean military exercises close to its shores, while Washington is concerned by China’s increasing willingness to flex its muscles. Ten days ago, Japan revealed that it had scrambled its fighter jets 44 times in the last nine months in response to incursions into Japanese air space by the Chinese air force.
“I’ve been concerned about the development of the anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles ever since I took this job,” said Mr Gates. “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 programmes.”
Last Thursday, Mr Gates announced a five-year military budget that would include funding for a new generation of long-range bombers, as well as for new electronic jammers and radar.
It is the recent advances made by the Chinese military that are causing the most unease in Washington. China is developing anti-ship ballistic missiles that have already been dubbed “carrier killers”, a deep worry for the US which relies on its aircraft carriers to project power in the region. Last week, Beijing unveiled what appeared to be the prototype of a stealth fighter, while there is also speculation that China may launch its first aircraft carrier later this year, far quicker than expected.
While China’s defence budget and weapons development programmes remain shrouded in secrecy, most analysts believe Chinese military technology remains a generation behind that of the US. Hu Jintao, China’s president, is due in Washington in just over a week for a long-awaited state visit, and it is hoped that the talks in Beijing will lay the groundwork for increased co-operation on security issues.
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