China may have started work on it first domestically built aircraft carrier and is likely to produce a number of carriers over the next decade as part of an aggressive effort to modernize its military, the Pentagon said Friday.
In its annual report to Congress appraising China's military strength, the Pentagon also cited concern about China's targeting of U.S. and other foreign computer networks as a means of collecting strategic intelligence. It based this conclusion on unspecified "authoritative writings" and China's "persistent cyber intrusions."
More broadly, the report described an ambitious Chinese military program aimed at transforming the People's Liberation Army into a modern force, fueled by years of double-digit increases in defense spending. Its main goals include preserving Communist Party rule and preparing for possible hostilities in the Taiwan Strait, the report said.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. Despite a marked improvement in relations over the past four years, China still threatens to attack across the Taiwan Strait if Taiwan moves to make its de facto independence permanent. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are a frequent source of diplomatic friction with Beijing.
"China's military shows no sign of slowing its efforts to prepare for Taiwan Strait contingencies," David Helvey, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, told a Pentagon news conference.
Beyond that, China has been developing a capability to project power well beyond its shores. One element of that is its expansion of naval power, including an anti-ship ballistic missile seen as a potential threat to U.S. aircraft carriers. Last year China also launched sea trials of its first carrier, a refurbished hulk purchased from Ukraine. Friday's report said China also may have begun work on its first built-from-scratch carrier.
The report, which in past years has drawn critical reviews in Beijing, was shorter than earlier versions and struck a measured tone. The Pentagon said it was meant to present data in a "descriptive, analytical manner."
China's military buildup is a central focus of the Obama administration as it shifts its attention more toward Asia and the Pacific in the aftermath of fighting wars in the greater Middle East over the past decade. The U.S. is not building new permanent bases in Asia but is seeking more security partnerships in the region.
Last year's Pentagon report forecast the possibility of China beginning construction of a fully indigenous carrier; this year's version went slightly farther, saying "some components" of the first carrier may already be under construction. It said that carrier could be ready for use after 2015, and that China is likely to build more of them.
"It will still take several additional years for China to achieve a minimal level of combat capability for its aircraft carriers," the report said, because it does not yet have pilots fully trained in carrier flight operations.
The Pentagon also said China's military is pursuing "new historic missions" that go beyond its traditional role of defending the homeland. These additional missions include humanitarian aid, combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden and counter-terrorism operations. The Pentagon cited as an example China's evacuation last year of 36,000 Chinese nationals from Libya during the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi.
Helvey said these Chinese operations abroad offer chances for cooperation with the U.S. military, which also has an interest in combating piracy and terrorism. On the other hand, he said, the U.S. will be watching closely to see that as it extends its reach around the world China lives up to its obligation to "uphold international norms and rules and to support the international community's interests in peace and stability."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to make his first visit to China as Pentagon chief as early as this summer. On May 7 he hosted his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, in Washington.
Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP