By John T. Bennett
Sunday, August 28th, 2011 The Hill

Conservative lawmakers and analysts are seizing upon the Pentagon’s finding that China is “closing the gap” with other militaries to criticize the Obama administration’s plans to pare U.S. defense spending.

The critics say the president does not fully grasp the Asian giant’s global ambitions.

“The [Pentagon’s] China military power report acknowledges China’s insatiable desire to become a world class economic and military power as it advances toward transforming its military into a dominant regional force by 2020 and an unrivaled international power by 2050,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Readiness.

Forbes then turned his sights, in a veiled way, on plans to trim at least $350 billion from U.S. military budgets between 2013 and 2023.

“There is no question that China is rapidly closing the technology gap and striving to challenge the United States’ military prowess — there is a question, though, of whether the United States will simply cede its global and military leadership role to a nation with uncertain intentions, but known disregard for human rights, basic freedoms, and democratic institutions,” Forbes said in a news release.

In its annual report to Congress, released Wednesday, the Pentagon acknowledged that China’s military is “steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces.”

Speaking to reporters that afternoon, Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for East Asia, said Beijing’s buildup could end up being a “destabilizing” force in the Asia-Pacific region.

As part of its military buildup, China is expected to increase its defense spending by nearly 13 percent over last year’s amount. That will continue its years-long trend of annually increasing military spending.

Beijing, over the next decade, will field a number of combat systems that are “on par with” or will “exceed global standards,” Schiffer said.

Those findings alarm pro-defense lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said China’s emphasis on fielding systems designed to deny foes access to the western Pacific should concern Washington.

“This has significant consequences for the security and stability of the region,” McKeon said in a news release.

“China clearly believes that it can capitalize on the global financial crisis, using the United States’ economic uncertainty as a window of opportunity to strengthen China’s economic, diplomatic, and security interests,” McKeon said.

The question of whether to enact even deeper Defense cuts while China continues ramping up will be one the special congressional supercommittee must mull as they craft a deficit-reduction plan.

Analyst Dean Cheng wrote on a Heritage Foundation blog after the Pentagon released its report that “it is becoming clear that the Obama administration has an utterly incoherent view of the People’s Republic of China.”

“Despite a broad view within the U.S. government that the Chinese military is modernizing across a range of capabilities, is intent upon challenging the ability of the U.S. to support friends and allies, and is focused on the use of force across the Taiwan Straits,” Cheng wrote, “the administration nonetheless does not see fit to provide Taiwan with modern systems to replace obsolete ones.”

But even the hawkish Forbes acknowledged that the Pentagon squandered an opportunity to maintain its big advantage over Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army.

“While the Pentagon has skipped a generation of modernization, repeatedly failed to meet its own goals from shipbuilding to bolstering the aircraft carrier fleet, and is currently facing the masthead of a trillion dollars in defense cuts,” Forbes said, “the Chinese have met the goals of their sustained modernization program and are steadily increasing their own military budget.”