Is this threat real, though? In each of the last five years, Congress has required the Defense Department to issue a report titled "Military Power of the People's Republic of China." The latest edition, released last spring—like the one released in the spring of 2006—provides little basis for losing sleep (or building more F-22s).
China's military is actively building up its strength. In March 2007, it announced a 17.8 percent increase in its military budget—larger than the increase of the country's gross domestic product. The Pentagon report notes that China is "pursuing long-term comprehensive transformation of its military forces to improve its capabilities for power projection." It's learning lessons about information warfare from our battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's building more short-range ballistic missiles across from the Taiwan Strait. And its leaders are expressing interest in building an aircraft carrier.
This last point tells the tale, though: they're expressing interest in building an aircraft carrier—they're not building one. China did buy two used aircraft carriers from Russia, the Minsk in 1998 and the Kiev in 2000. But, in the words of the Pentagon report, "Neither carrier was made operational; instead, they were used as floating military theme parks."
The report also quotes Lt. Gen. Wang Zhiyuan, vice chairman of the science and technology commission of the Chinese army's general armament department. "The Chinese army will study how to manufacture aircraft carriers so that we can develop our own," Wang wrote, adding that "aircraft carriers are indispensable if we want to protect our interests in oceans."
They're "indispensable" to "protect" China's maritime interests, much less to project China's power outside its peripheries. Yet China has no aircraft carriers. Wang is quoted as saying it can't build any "within three or five years." The Pentagon report notes that some U.S. intelligence analysts think China might have an aircraft carrier by 2011-15, while others don't think that day will come until "2020 or later."
As for China's attempts to modernize its military, the Pentagon report notes that it is "untested in modern warfare" and that its senior officers "lack direct military experience" while also facing "deficiencies in inter-service cooperation and actual experience in joint operations." The U.S. intelligence community "estimates that China will take until the end of this decade or later to produce a modern force capable of defeating a moderate-sized adversary." (Italics added.)
The report states many times that China's main priority, for the next several years, is to deter an attack on the Taiwan Strait, not to project power throughout Asia. However, even on this limited level, the report notes, "China does not yet possess the military capability to accomplish with confidence its political objectives on the island [of Taiwan], particularly when confronted with the prospect of U.S. intervention."
Finally, it quotes a Beijing report titled "China's National Defense in 2006" as stating that China "pursues a three-step development strategy in modernizing its national defense." The first step: "[L]ay a solid foundation by 2010." Second: Achieve "major progress by 2020." Third: Be "capable of winning [information-technology] wars by mid 21st century." (Italics added.)
In other words, it's worth keeping an eye on China. But it's probably not worth spending tens or hundreds of billions of dollars now for a program like the F-22, which its own sponsors admit might be needed in case a threat develops 20 years in the future. In its FY 2009 budget request earlier this month, the Pentagon requested $4.1 billion to buy the last 20 F-22 planes. Let's leave it at that.