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HONOLULU — China is modernizing its military forces faster than anyone expected only a few years ago, escalating the potential danger to the island of Taiwan, to American forces and bases in Asia, and to the overall balance of power in the region.

“China adheres to the military strategy of active defense and works to speed up the revolution of military affairs with Chinese characteristics,” says the white paper Beijing issued in December. It points to “leapfrog development” in high-tech weapons for its missile units, navy and air force.

Where many American and Asian analysts said before that China would be able to mount a credible threat between 2010 and 2015, now they are saying it will come earlier, perhaps by 2006 and certainly by 2012.

China seems driven by the perception that Taiwan, over which Beijing claims sovereignty, is drifting toward formal independence, that the United States is becoming a greater menace as it realigns and strengthens its forces in Asia, and that, more distantly, Japan has begun to assert itself militarily.

Behind this military progress has been the rapid growth of the Chinese economy that pays for the military power. China’s defense budget is estimated to have ballooned to $80 billion, the world’s third-largest after the U.S. and Russia, and almost double that of Japan, which has Asia’s second-largest defense budget.

The Chinese, insisting on self-sufficiency, have bought weapons and technology from abroad, notably from Russia. China could afford those purchases because Beijing’s foreign exchange reserves, the world’s largest, rose to $610 billion by the end of 2004, more than 10 times their holdings of $53 billion 10 years ago.

To buy even more, the Chinese have been urging the European Union to lift the arms embargo imposed after the uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 in which unknown hundreds of advocates of democracy were killed by Chinese soldiers. The U.S. and Taiwan adamantly oppose easing the restriction.

The Chinese, ironically, have learned much from the U.S. armed forces, having intensely studied the lessons learned in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, U.S. deployments to the Balkans in the late 1990s, and most recently by the swift destruction of Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq.

Even so, American military officers contend that the U.S. has sufficient combat power — notably at sea, in the sky, and with nuclear weapons — to defeat China if hostilities broke out. Said one, however, “it sure complicates our planning.”

This assessment of Chinese military power was drawn from the Chinese white paper, a recent defense report published in Taiwan, a Pentagon report to Congress and conversations with American and Asian analysts with access to intelligence reports.

The vanguard of China’s military advance has been hardware. Military education and training have improved as has logistics, while the integration of forces to invade Taiwan or to challenge the U.S. has lagged.

China’s missile force, called the Second Artillery, had been deploying 50 to 75 short-range missiles a year. That has increased to more than 100, and in 2006 Second Artillery will have 800 aimed at Taiwan. Accuracy has doubled, meaning that most missiles are expected to hit within 20 to 30 meters of their targets. Moreover, the missiles have been made mobile to make them less of a target. In a training drill, a brigade moved 583 km and was ready to fire in two days.

Land-based and air-launched cruise missiles, which are flying torpedoes with stubby wings and advanced navigational devices, have been added to the Chinese inventory to improve their ability to stand off and fire at targets on Taiwan or at U.S. warships at sea.

In the Chinese Navy, long the stepchild of the People’s Liberation Army, submarines are leading the way. In the event of hostilities, they would be tasked with gaining control of the Taiwan Strait between the island and the mainland, and fending off the U.S. Navy.

China has bought eight Kilo diesel-electric submarines from Russia and is planning to buy four more. Beijing is also building its own Song class of diesel-electric submarines. Although they lack the range of nuclear-powered submarines, they are quieter and more effective close to shore. For long range operations, China is building several nuclear-powered attack submarines.

China, which has become the world’s third-largest shipbuilder, has produced about 100 amphibious ships, and four tank-landing ships are under construction — thus belying the U.S. Navy joke that, because the Chinese lacked amphibious ships, the only way they could invade Taiwan is by swimming.

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