Although the Obama administration delayed issuing an annual report on China's military capabilities by almost six months, Beijing predictably responded with hostility to the Pentagon's latest account of China's growing military power. Last Wednesday, two days after the release of the report, defence ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng insisted that 'China's military development is reasonable and appropriate, and is aimed at protecting its national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, as well as keeping pace with the rapid military development in the world'. The report had 'ignored objective facts', exaggerated China's military strength and was 'not beneficial to the improvement and development of Sino-American military ties', he said.
The foreign ministry, too, opposed the report and said that 'China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development' as well as a 'defence policy that is defensive in nature'.
However, neither pointed to any factual errors in the report, which was released only after five Republican senators wrote to US Defence Secretary Dr Robert Gates expressing concern about the Pentagon's failure to submit the report, which was due on March 1.
If the Obama administration had hoped not to incur China's wrath by delaying the report - just as it had delayed a report on whether China was manipulating its currency - it failed miserably. Beijing, in fact, told the US to stop issuing such reports because they damage the Sino-American relationship.
In the report, the Pentagon said that although cross-strait ties had continued to improve, the mainland's military build-up opposite Taiwan 'continued unabated'.
Moreover, the People's Liberation Army had begun a new phase of military development that goes 'beyond China's immediate territorial interests'. Of special concern was the development of an anti-ship ballistic missile capable of attacking aircraft carriers 1,500 kilometres away. Such missiles could make it difficult for US carriers to be deployed in the vicinity of Taiwan.
The report, without accusing Beijing, said that last year 'numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the US government, continued to be the target of intrusions that appear to have originated within the PRC'. It pointed out that developing capabilities for cyberwarfare is 'consistent with authoritative PLA military writings'.
This charge was vigorously rebutted by 'Chinese experts' who ostensibly represented non-governmental organisations.
China's recent unwonted assertiveness has worried not only the United States but a number of its neighbours as well. Japanese media reports indicate that China's naval build-up has caused Tokyo to hold detailed talks with Washington about a possible joint response. Japan has reportedly begun to develop an anti-ship missile in response to China's growing naval power. The Sankei newspaper also reported that Tokyo was planning to increase the size of its submarine fleet.
The South Korean navy is strengthening its submarine fleet, with plans for another 15 by 2018, to become the second largest in Asia after China.
South Korea's JoongAng newspaper has said that, in view of North Korea's exploits, Seoul had no alternative but to develop its own nuclear weapons.
While the Japanese government is maintaining a studied silence on the subject, the Asahi newspaper said last week that 'Japan must co-operate not only with the United States but also with Asean members to seek detente with China'. That is to say, the countries of northeast and Southeast Asia should co-operate with the United States to contain China. Australia and India are also likely to strengthen their naval capabilities.
Beijing does not want to see an arms race or, worse, to see more nuclear powers in its neighbourhood. This being the case, China would be wise to take stock, and reconsider its position. After all, other countries are responding to Chinese moves.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator