WASHINGTON — As threat documents go, the latest version of the Pentagon’s annual report, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China”, released last month, is actually a fairly reassuring document.

In contrast with its now-distant predecessor, “Soviet Military Power”, put out during the administration of the late president Ronald Reagan to justify increasing US military expenditures by magnifying the Soviet military threat, this report presents a picture of a state that seeks to increase its great-power status. Insofar as alarming developments are concerned, that is not one of them.

As a global threat, China simply doesn’t compare to the old Soviet Union. The new Pentagon report acknowledges China’s limited military ability:

The People’s Liberation Army (is pursuing comprehensive transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to one capable of fighting and winning short-duration, high-intensity conflicts against high-tech adversaries—which China refers to as “local wars under conditions of informatization”.

China’s ability to sustain military power at a distance, at present, remains limited but, as noted in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, it “has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional US military advantage”.

Some of what is passed off as potentially or actually disturbing is laughable. For example, the report states, “Actual Chinese defense expenditures remain far above officially disclosed figures.” One could say exactly the same thing about the United States.

For example, the US administration’s fiscal year 2007 budget request of US$439 billion marks an increase of about 27% in real terms since September 11, 2001. That figure does not include $21.8 billion for Department of Energy (DOE) spending on nuclear-weapons activities.

Nor does it include spending on the wars it is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. When these costs are added in, military spending for 2007 exceeded $600 billion—a figure that surpasses the spending heights of both the Reagan military buildup and the Vietnam War in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The report notes some military developments in China without giving the full background. For example, it states that Chinese nuclear forces are enhancing their “strategic strike capabilities”, as evidenced by the DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile achieving “initial threat availability” in 2006.

But as the Arms Control Wonk website observes, because of debate over the 1996 National Intelligence Estimate on ballistic-missile threats, political pressure on the intelligence community led to the creation of a designation of “initial threat availability” to signal a missile that has been successfully tested but not deployed. So even if a missile has been tested just once, it can have an “initial threat availability” status.

Thus far, the DF-31 has not had an impressive test record. The US intelligence community confirmed three DF-31 tests in 1999-2000 but they all failed. In fact, at the background briefing for the press on May 25, even a Defense Department official acknowledged its limitations:

Question: (off mike) About terminology. Could you explain a little further with regard to the DF-31 status what you mean by initial threat availability? And also, could you say a little bit more about what’s referenced in the report of China developing methods to counter ballistic-missile defense?

Defense official: I can address that question. When we say initial threat availability, what we mean is that the system is available and could be used if China’s leaders determine that they wanted to. The distinction between initial threat availability and initial operational capability is that right now we assess that DF-31 may not be fully integrated into the force structure, may not have all the requisite supporting personnel/equipment that we believe they would need to have to be considered fully operational. So I mean it’s a distinction that says that the system is ready or available now but it’s not necessarily fully operational.

Q: Kind of like the US missile-defense system? (Laughter.)

Some things the report cites as noteworthy seem bizarre, as threats go. For example, “Reflecting increasing concerns over energy and resource needs, 2006 saw the largest annual increase in new energy contracts signed by China, including new agreements with Saudi Arabia and several African countries. China’s effort to court African nations in 2006 culminated with a November summit in Beijing attended by 40 heads of state and delegates from 48 of the 53 African nations.”

In other words, China behaved like any other state in terms of securing the resources it needs to survive.

And, later on, the report notes that China might have some legitimate reasons for strengthening its military, as “at present, China can neither protect its foreign energy supplies nor the routes on which they travel, including the Strait of Malacca, through which some 80% of China’s crude-oil imports transit”.

Much of the report contains carefully hedged language that leaves it to the reader’s imagination to think the worst about what China might do. For example, after noting that China’s near-term focus is on preparing for military contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, it states that “strategic thinking suggests Beijing is also generating capabilities for other regional contingencies”.