US Seeks More Info on China's Military

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When Defense Secretary Robert Gates travels to East Asia for a round of regional security talks this week, he's expected to raise pointed objections about China's military buildup and modernization plans. But he'll do it striking a softer chord.

The approach is expected to be unlike that of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld: When he spoke at the same conference in 2005, he bluntly took Beijing to task for secretively expanding its military.

This year, things are a bit different: China has been slightly more forthcoming in terms of reporting its military capabilities. And Chinese military leaders have been all the more welcoming of their US counterparts, hosting them for a number of visits and other exchanges.

Secretary Gates, known as a pragmatist since taking the Pentagon's helm in December, is likely to keep the pressure on China. He will speak Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a three- day security conference named after the Singapore hotel at which the conference takes place. A delegation from Beijing is expected to attend.

"Gates will go in a bit more modestly, but make the point that this is still of great concern," says Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

That doesn't mean American defense officials aren't concerned about China's growing capabilities.

China is positioning itself to be not just a regional player and a threat to neighboring Taiwan, but instead a country with potentially far loftier goals, defense officials say. According to a new Pentagon report released Friday that compiles key changes in China's evolving military, China has expanded to 900 the number of short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan - an increase of more than 100 over last year. It continues to develop its DF-31 intercontinental-range ballistic missile, a sign of the broader influence it would like to have. And it's building, expanding, or acquiring new platforms such as a "multi-role" jet fighter, a battle tank, and a guided missile frigate.

It is also developing other missile programs, including a new submarine-launched ballistic missile on a new class of nuclear- powered submarines, according to the report, which is an annual assessment required by Congress.

Questions remain on whether Beijing wants to build a new aircraft carrier - signaling, potentially, a more preemptive military strategy. And just how much China spends on its military is another mystery, defense officials say. …