In June, the Chinese military received the first of its new, long-range bombers, the Hongzha-6K. It's an upgraded model of the twin-engine plane the Chinese have used for decades, but has some significant new bells and whistles - most notably the likely ability to carry cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
The bomber is among the ground likely to be covered at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday as members of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission testify about their annual report. It warns that the Chinese are "rapidly expanding and diversifying" their ability to strike U.S. bases, ships and aircraft throughout to the Pacific, including those in places like Guam that were previously out of reach. The report's release comes as the U.S. simultaneously increases the frequency with which it interacts with the Chinese military, and blasts the country for hacking into U.S. computer networks to steal secrets.
The commission's report strikes a balance between sounding the alarm on China's ambitions and recommending continued cooperation on issues of common interest. But it warns about China's rise in stark terms, saying the country has become increasingly aggressive in the way it handles long-standing issues with the Philippines, Japan and other nations.
"Although sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas are not new, China's growing diplomatic, economic, and military clout is improving China's ability to assert its interests," it says. "It is increasingly clear that China does not intend to resolve the disputes through multilateral negotiations or the application of international laws and adjudicative processes but instead will use its growing power in support of coercive tactics that pressure its neighbors to concede to China's claims."
The commission highlighted the development of China's new attack drone as another example of the country's military development. First displayed at an air show in 2012 (pictured above), their Yi Long unmanned aerial vehicle closely resembles the MQ-9 Reaper, which can be armed with Hellfire missiles, bombs and other weapons.
The commission also warns against the growth of the Chinese navy, an issue that has increasingly has received attention as the U.S. military interacts with it. While U.S. officials fight over whether the U.S. navy should shrink, China is going in the opposite direction, the report says.
"By 2020, barring a U.S. naval renaissance, it is possible that China will become the world's leading military shipbuilder in terms of the numbers of submarines, surface combatants and other naval surface vessels produced per year," the report says, citing Chinese military experts Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins.
The report's release comes as the Senate wrestles this week with the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, the law outlining the Defense Department's budget. Service chiefs also have continued to pointedly warn Congress about the effects of sequestration, automatic spending cuts that were put in place to reduce the federal deficit.
In one example, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the House Armed Services Committee in September that unless some funding is restored, one scenario under discussion would reduce the U.S. Navy in 2020 to between 255 and 260 ships, about 30 percent fewer than today. It would mean one or two fewer carrier strike groups and one or two fewer amphibious ready groups, the three-ship configurations that commonly carry U.S. Marines around the globe.
"We understand the pressing need for the nation to get its fiscal house in order," Greenert said in prepared testimony. "DOD should do its part, but it is imperative we do so in a coherent and thoughtful manner to ensure appropriate readiness, warfighting capability and forward presence - the attributes we depend upon from our Navy."
The commission's report recommends boosting funding for U.S. shipbuilding so that at least 60 ships and 60 percent of the Navy's homeports are in the Pacific by 2020 "so that the United States will have the capacity to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific offset China's growing military capabilities, and surge naval assets in the event of a contingency" - part of the U.S.'s previously announced plan to shift more military operations to the Pacific.
It is unclear whether that will occur now, however, in light of the budget crunch and continued hostilities across Northern Africa and the Middle East.
While the U.S. wrestles with its future naval presence in the Pacific, it is also expanding its engagement with the Chinese military on areas where common ground can be found. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of contacts between the U.S. military and its Chinese counterpart doubles from about 20 to 40, the commission's report says. That counts visits by leaders, academic exchanges, joint exercises and other forms of interaction.
In September, two senior officers with the Chinese Navy traveled to San Diego and Washington, meeting with Greenert and touring a U.S. aircraft carrier and submarine, the report says. They also visited Camp Pendleton, Calif., where they interacted with Marine commanders, before visiting Navy leadership at the Pentagon and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
One other potential future bright spot: China will join more than 20 other nations next year in Rim of the Pacific military exercises around Hawaii - a first. The U.S. and China will continue to circle each other carefully until then, looking to learn about each other without offering more information than agreed upon.
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