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China bolsters its forces, US says

Pentagon report sees possible peril to Taiwan

WASHINGTON -- China has substantially beefed up its military in the past few years and will soon have the capacity to block US forces from defending Taiwan, according to Pentagon officials preparing a classified report. The report will warn that China has successfully copied other nations' technology to build modern armed forces.

The document, which will be released within weeks, also will assert that China is on the verge of launching a new fighter jet that closely follows the design of Israel's Lavi warplane. In addition, Beijing has nearly doubled the number of short-range missiles aimed across the Taiwan Straits over the past two years to 725, the Pentagon officials said.

By strengthening its air power and acquiring dozens of new warships and submarines, China is close to having the ability to knock out Taiwan's airfields and ports before the United States could intervene, the sources said.

The conclusions differ greatly from those of a decade ago, when US intelligence officials judged China to be incapable of invading Taiwan or of presenting a serious threat to US forces.

''The Chinese know where they need to go and know what they need to get there," said a senior defense official involved in drafting the report.

The official said the Chinese military would soon be able to breach Taiwan's defenses before the US military could stop it.

Under a scenario outlined in the planned report, Chinese forces could bombard Taiwan from the air and use new weapons such as Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, warships, and amphibious landing craft to blockade the island nation before the United States could mobilize forces.

The United States would then have to evict Chinese forces from Taiwan rather than block an invasion of the island, a far more daunting prospect.

The new J-10 fighter, which is expected to be launched this year, was built with the aid of Israeli technology, either by copying a design or through assistance from Israeli industries, according to the officials. The jet is China's most sophisticated fighter to date, and on a par with the US F-16, intelligence officials said.

US officials stopped short of suggesting that Israel has given technology to China, but they said they saw the new fighter as the latest result of the close military ties between Israel and China.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently dressed down Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz for assisting China's military, say aides familiar with the meeting of the officials in Washington.

The Israeli Embassy did not respond to inquiries about the J-10.

The fighter would make its debut as the United States is urging European allies not to lift an arms embargo against China, fearing such a move would give Beijing greater access to technologies.

Those technologies covered by the European Union embargo -- from advanced computer software to radars and communications equipment -- would further neutralize some US and Taiwanese military strengths, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

China's military buildup has been of particular concern to the neoconservatives who dominate the high echelons of the Pentagon. This group, which favors the use of US force to promote democracy, consider Taiwan an important democratic outpost in Asia.

In 1949, anticommunist forces fled mainland China to what was then the province of Formosa, creating an autonomous Taiwan. China continues to view Taiwan as a breakaway province.

US policy calls for a peaceful reunification, but the United States has long provided Taiwan with billions of dollars of military equipment in the event that China attempts a military assault. In 1996, when China test-fired missiles over Taiwan during Taiwanese elections, the United States dispatched two carriers to the region before the crisis was defused.

Despite the Chinese threats and the fears of neoconservatives, US intelligence agencies generally have made more moderate assessments of China's intentions, reporting that the world's most populous country, which has more than doubled its military spending since the late 1990s, would act only if Taiwan precipitated a crisis by declaring formal independence.

Pentagon officials, however, paint a more threatening picture. They say that China has closely studied US military tactics and that it is perfecting ways to neutralize the US military in a regional confrontation, including disabling US spy gear, taking down US computers, and raining missiles on Taiwan.

The forthcoming report is likely to play a prominent role as the Pentagon conducts the Quadrennial Defense Review this year. The review is required by Congress every four years to outline US military priorities. The Air Force and Navy have expressed concern that some of their prized programs, including next-generation aircraft and ships, will be delayed or canceled to free up resources for the Army and Marine Corps.

Some nongovernment analysts see the warnings about China as a way to justify greater US spending on ships and planes.

''A great deal of self-serving distortion makes its way into analysis," said James Lilley, the former top US diplomat in both China and Taiwan. Lilley says the China threat is being exaggerated by some in the Pentagon to justify increased weapons spending.

However, Pentagon officials say the report will use the J-10 as an example of how the Chinese, by reverse-engineering foreign technologies from Israel, Russia, and other countries, have established a mature arms industry.

The J-10 has been 17 years in the planning. US officials say the Chinese engineers working on the project benefited from close cooperation with Israel.

The Israeli Lavi was designed in the 1980s with US help, but only two prototypes were built; the fighter itself was never put into service. Much of its design, however, appears to have found its way into the Chinese fighter, Pentagon officials say.

''It's no longer a prototype, it's a real program," Rob Hewson, editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons in London, said of what is known about the J-10. ''There has been input from Israel, Russia, and help from several other projects in terms of radar and avionics and weapons. It is a Chinese synthesis of others' experience. It's impossible to say just how great Israel's cooperation has been. But the similarities are very striking."

Israel's ties to China are a continuing US concern. Israel withdrew an offer in 2000 to provide China with airborne command and control planes after US opposition. Amid new pressure, Mofaz, Israel's defense minister, instructed defense industry executives last month not to meet with the Chinese military without approval.

Perhaps more worrisome than the new jet, according to the Pentagon, is the breakneck pace at which China is positioning short-range missiles across from Taiwan. In 2003 the Pentagon reported that about 450 missiles were deployed across the narrow strait. The new report will put that number at 275 more.

''It seems those numbers have jumped up very quickly," said Hewson, adding that he was skeptical of the count. ''There is not a lot of hard evidence to support it."

Nonetheless the Pentagon and outside experts agree that China is also making progress on what it needs most to take advantage of its new arsenal: an educated military to replace its conscript army. In their own writings about military strategy, the Chinese have placed enormous emphasis on professionalizing their armed forces, including establishing a noncommissioned officer corps and enticing troops to make a career out of their service, rather than a two-year tour.

''The big question is whether they can fight" with the force ''they have built," said retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, the former US military attaché in Beijing.

Nevertheless, he said: ''They certainly seem to be pointing their modernization at Taiwan and our ability to defend it. It is a distortion to say they could confront the entire US military. They are not in the same league. Under limited circumstances they could do something. That is not a distortion. They are nearly there."

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