updated 1/7/2011 7:51:27 AM ET 2011-01-07T12:51:27

Stealth fighter jets in development. Guided missiles dubbed "carrier killers." As America's top defense official visits China next week, its growing military capabilities are redrawing the security landscape in Asia, putting the country with the largest standing army on a potential collision course with the United States.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who arrives late Sunday for a five-day visit, will formally restore military-to-military exchanges, cut off a year ago by Beijing over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

In the past year, China's diplomatic and military stance has became increasingly muscular, even confrontational, most notably at sea.

Worried Asian neighbors turned to the United States, which was already stepping up its engagement with the region.

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"We are settling into what all observers agree is a Sino-American security rivalry. The key is to manage and stabilize it so it does not become a conflict," said Dan Blumenthal, a former China country director at the Pentagon and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

China says it's not a threat and its military is purely for defense — which in its definition includes deterring Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory, from declaring formal independence.

Chinese officials have been ratcheting down their rhetoric, partly to ensure a smooth visit by President Hu Jintao to Washington later this month.

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Military contacts with the United States quietly resumed in October, and the invitation to Gates is the strongest signal to date of a more conciliatory approach.

'Peaceful rise'
But China's growing military strength can be at odds with the government's avowed policy of a "peaceful rise" — that a more powerful China will not threaten its neighbors or upset the global order.

Rosemary Foot, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, said China's leaders are caught between the view that Beijing should take advantage of reduced American influence and increased Chinese power to press its foreign policy demands and fears that a more aggressive diplomacy is undoing 15 years of effort to promote China's rise as peaceful.

The army's role is somewhat unclear: While top generals appear publicly in lock step with the Communist Party leadership, lower-ranking and retired officers have increasingly voiced more bellicose views.

Gates will be anxious to find out whether the latter represents a genuine independent voice coming from the People's Liberation Army, which has 2.3 million troops.

"We will want to gain a sense of how much the PLA operates as an autonomous foreign policy actor and whether they view American weakness as an opportunity or as a threat to stability in the region," said Victor Cha, the former Asia chief at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

China sent navy vessels and military aircraft closer to Japanese territory last year than ever before.

Video: China leaks photos of stealth fighter jet (on this page)

In April, Chinese ships were spotted in international waters off Okinawa, and a Chinese helicopter came within 300 feet of a Japanese military vessel monitoring a Chinese naval exercise.

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In Southeast Asia, stronger Chinese assertions of territorial claims to disputed islands prompted a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Washington considered the peaceful resolution of the disputes to be in the U.S. national interest.

Such statements and America's renewed commitment to Asia generally worry China, said Niu Jun, a professor at Peking University's School of International Relations. "China is very keen to find out why that is," he said.

Growing defense spending
China's assertive behavior magnifies the perceived threat from its growing defense spending.

China announced a smaller-than-usual 7.5 percent increase to $76.3 billion last year — the second largest defense budget in the world behind the United States.

Actual spending, including funding for new weapons and research and development, is believed to be as much as double that.

Bigger budgets fed by rapid economic growth have allowed China to speed up development of new technologies, including a prototype stealth fighter, photographs of which have been circulating on the Internet for the past two weeks.

Chinese officers have said they want to field such a jet within eight to 10 years.

China is also moving toward launching its first aircraft carrier, though it will take years to learn how to operate it.

China is overhauling an old Ukrainian carrier to use for training and is expected to begin work on a home-built carrier, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.

A more immediate concern is the ongoing development of the DF-21D "carrier-killer" missile, one that could hold a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group at bay in any confrontation over Taiwan.

The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Robert Willard, told a Japanese newspaper last month that he believed the missile had achieved "initial operational capability," meaning China has a workable design that is undergoing further development.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: China leaks photos of stealth fighter jet

  1. Closed captioning of: China leaks photos of stealth fighter jet

    >>> the explosive growth of china as a world player and a world power now apparently includes the development of a stealth fighter . aviation blogs have been covering it closely and publishing pictures, though they've all been blocked from the web in china itself. it's a single pilot twin engine prototype, apparently in the preflight testing stage. it borrows abappearance from many american made fighters and it's big, about the size of the old f-111 jet.


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