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Inside China's Secret Arsenal

• Peter W. Singer via

In a single generation, China has transformed itself from a largely agrarian country into a global manufacturing and trading powerhouse. China’s economy is 20 times bigger than it was two decades ago and is on track to surpass the United States’ as the world’s largest. But perhaps most startling has been the growth of China’s ambitious and increasingly powerful military.

Click to see the planes leading China's military innovation

Just 10 years ago, the budget for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was roughly $20 billion. Today, that number is more like $100 billion. (Some analysts think it’s closer to $160 billion.) The PLA’s budget is only a sixth of what the U.S. devotes to defense annually, but defense dollars go much further in China, and in the years ahead, Chinese military spending will grow at the same rate as its economy. Meanwhile, Chinese president Hu Jintao has called for the PLA to carry out “new historic missions” in the 21st century—to move beyond the traditional goal of defending the nation’s sovereignty and develop the global military reach of a true world superpower. In some cases, China’s increasing international presence could lead to greater cooperation with the U.S., as it did in 2008 when China joined antipiracy patrols off Somalia. But if American and Chinese forces end up in the same place with different goals, the result could be a standoff between two of the best-equipped militaries in the world.

American officials aren’t just concerned about the amount of money the Chinese military is spending. They’re worried about the technology that money is buying. U.S. military hardware remains a generation ahead of any rival’s, but the Chinese have begun to close the gap. Consider China’s progress in building advanced warplanes. Until recently, American officials thought their F-22 and F-35 aircraft were the world’s only fifth-generation fighters (the name given to a class of stealthy fighter jets developed in the past decade, which are equipped with radar-evading features, high-performance engines and avionics, and networked computer systems). Then, on a 2011 trip to China, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates learned otherwise. While Gates met with Hu Jintao, his hosts “coincidentally” revealed the existence of an advanced new fighter, the J-20, by staging the inaugural public flight over the city of Chengdu.

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