The Chinese Academy of Sciences projected in 2008 that China will be able to match the U.S. in terms of military power after 2050 at the earliest, while it will take a further 20 or 30 years to finally catch up -- making it difficult for China to overtake the U.S. in this area within this century.
But some experts say Beijing is being excessively humble in making such projections, as the country has made strides in recent years in boosting its naval, air, space and missile capabilities. China's first aircraft carrier, the remodeled 67,000-ton Varyag, which was purchased from Ukraine back in 1998, went on its test voyage last year. The country is also expected to launch its first homegrown aircraft carrier around 2015.
The world caught a glimpse of China's naval ambitions through the so-called "island chain" strategy revealed by Navy Commander Liu Huaqing during the 1980s. China's maritime defense boundaries are formed by a primary island chain composed of Okinawa, Taiwan and the South China Sea, and a secondary island chain made up of Saipan, Guam and Indonesia.
Liu said at that time, "We will establish control of the primary island chain by 2010 and the second one by 2020, while resisting U.S. domination of the Pacific and Indian oceans by 2040."
Over the last two decades, China's military spending has increased 16.2 percent each year on average, and it ranked second in the world in 2010 after forking out US$91.7 billion. Experts in the U.S. and other western countries estimate that China's actual military spending is two to three times larger than official figures.
But many experts believe that China will not be able to catch up with the U.S. within the next 30 to 50 years considering the technology of its weapons, size of strategic weapons and defense spending.
According to a 2010 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies of the United Kingdom, the total weight of the U.S. Navy's vessels amounted to 3.12 million tons, which was larger than the combined tonnage of the world's second- to 14th -largest navies. The total tonnage of China's naval vessels amounted to 680,000 tons.
In 2008, U.S. defense spending totaled $607 billion, which accounted for 40 percent of the world's defense budget and was greater than the total military spending of the world's second to 10th military powers, including China.
Military experts say China is around 30 years behind the U.S. in terms of conventional weapons technology, 20 years behind in nuclear weapons, and 10 to 15 years behind in space technology.
"China imported 94 percent of its conventional weapons from Russia between 2002 and 2007," said Lee Chang-hyung, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "It will be difficult for China to narrow the gap with the U.S. in the foreseeable future."
South Korea's military is working hard to deal with China's growing presence. In preparation for the deployment of China's first aircraft carrier, for example, it is developing a supersonic anti-vessel cruise missile. It is also considering producing small submarines that are difficult to detect in shallow waters like the West Sea.
The nation's armed forces have been bolstering their high-tech weapons arsenals since the mid-1990s by developing Aegis destroyers and purchasing early-warning aircraft, not just to deter threats from North Korea, but rather to prepare for the rising military powers of China and Japan.
"There are limitations to dealing with China's rising military power merely through defense spending," a military official said. "We need to establish a new security strategy by looking into a wide range of military partnerships with China as well as strengthening our alliance with the U.S."