PRAGUE, 9 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The apparent ease with which China has entered the world of manned space flight illustrates that country's increasing grasp of advanced technology.
The United States has watched carefully such Chinese technical achievements, and examined clues about the country's possible arms buildup.
Washington's conclusion? China is the major power most likely to challenge American military supremacy in the next few decades.
The Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review says China has the "greatest potential" to overtake the present U.S. supremacy unless the United States acts to counter that by developing new capabilites of its own. Groundless -- Or Inevitable?
Beijing has rejected the Pentagon predictions as groundless, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan saying that Washington's assessment "whips up a Chinese military threat and misleads public opinion."
However, Analyst Jean-Philippe Beja, of the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris says the mere fact China is growing so fast economically makes rivalry with the United States inevitable.
Although not allies in the military sense, it's alleged that China has long supplied Tehran with missiles and missile parts, which have helped Iran build up an arsenal of medium-range weapons.
"The realist theory in international relations asserts that this situation brings at least contradictions and dangers, and that
an emerging power will disrupt the [existing] balance of power, and will try to assert itself militarily," Beja says.
At any rate, China is being less than frank about the extent of its present military budget, according to Western intelligence officials. Beijing claims its yearly spending on defense is around $30 billion dollars -- a mere drop in the ocean in defense spending terms. But a Pentagon estimate issued last year puts the real level at up to $90 billion per year. Shopping For Arms
Certainly the Chinese armed forces are buying new equipment at a solid rate. Beijing is Russia's best customer for arms, with contracts in 2004 alone reportedly worth some $2 billion for missile systems, aircraft, submarines, and surface ships.
As the then-Russian Armed Forces Chief General Anatoly Kvashnin is quoted as saying, the Russian arms industry is busy supplying China with equipment "which the Russian army does not [yet] have."
China's emergence in recent years as a regional, and prospectively a world, power has of course impacted on its neighbors.
Washington says China is the major power most likely to challenge American military supremacy in the next few decades.
"The real problem in East Asia is that there are two candidates for the status of big power," says Beja. "Japan, of course, is economically very strong; it is actually militarily quite strong, too. And the question is, what will be the attitudes of these two countries" -- Japan and China -- "toward each other?" Regional Adversaries
At present, relations between Tokyo and Beijing are at their lowest point in many years, with a number of disputes simmering, mainly connected with Japanese excesses before and during World War Two.
Beja says China has played the nationalism card cleverly elsewhere in Asia, with the result that Japan is unpopular on similar grounds in a number of Asian countries.
The current Japanese government has called China a threat because of its opaque military spending. However, Beja says attitudes can change with new leaderships, and Sino-Japanese ties could warm again.
Iran and China, meanwhile, have been developing a friendship for years. Although not allies in the military sense, it's alleged that China has long supplied Tehran with missiles and missile parts, which have helped Iran build up an arsenal of weapons with a range of some 2,000 kilometers.
Longer-range rockets are under development, and some reports have said work is going ahead to make these missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
But China appears to have recently put a limit to its friendship with Tehran: it sided with the United States, Russia, and European powers at the International Atomic Energy Agency on the decision to to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council unless it gives a clearer account of its nuclear program.