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Pentagon says China improving ability to launch surprise attacks

WASHINGTON -- China is modernizing its military in ways that give it options for launching surprise attacks, potentially far from its borders, the Pentagon said yesterday.

In an annual report to Congress, the Pentagon said the Chinese are acquiring better missiles, submarines, and aircraft and should more fully explain the purpose of a military buildup that has led some to view China as a threat.

In a measured tone, the report offered a detailed look at China's military modernization. And it outlined areas of perceived ambiguity in Chinese strategy, including its declared policy of never starting a nuclear war; it concluded that Beijing may be exploring "new options" provided by its force modernization.

The Chinese Embassy did not immediately return messages yesterday seeking comment. China has reacted angrily to previous Pentagon reports and has insisted that its multibillion-dollar military buildup is defensive.

Peter Rodman, who until this year was the Pentagon's top Asia policy official, said in an interview that senior Chinese officials have repeatedly assured US defense officials that their "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons remains intact. Rodman, now a foreign studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, said one reason for doubt is the existence of a debate in military circles over the future of China's nuclear doctrine.

The Pentagon said China's short-term focus remains the Taiwan Straits, where it continues to position more short-range ballistic missiles. But more broadly, the People's Liberation Army is pursuing a strategy that appears designed to give China a capability to fight wars farther from its shores and to thwart any US advances.

It asserted, for example, that last year the new DF-31 long-range nuclear missile became available for use in a military emergency, even though it apparently is not fully integrated into China's strategic nuclear force. It said the DF-31, which has enough range to reach Alaska but is not the main Chinese missile targeting the United States, is likely to become fully operational in the near future, if it has not already.

"The expanding military capabilities of China's armed forces are a major factor in changing East Asian military balances," the report said.

As it has in the past, the Pentagon said China's true defense spending is two or three times the publicly announced defense budget.