WASHINGTON — When China launched threatening war games off Taiwan 15 years ago on the eve of an election on the self-governing island, the U.S. deployed two aircraft carriers, and China quickly backed down.
Things don't seem so one-sided any more.
China's military has been on a spending spree at a time that the debt-ridden U.S. government is looking to cut defense costs. On Friday, China announced a 12.7 percent hike for this year, the latest in a string of double-digit increases.
That trend has triggered worries in Congress and among security analysts about whether the United States can maintain its decades-long military predominance in the economically crucial Asia-Pacific.
While the U.S. military has been drained by 10 years of costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, China has developed air, naval and missile capabilities that could undercut U.S. superiority in China's backyard.
China is still decades away from building a military as strong as the United States. It has not fought a major conflict since a border war with Vietnam in 1979 and is not a Soviet-style rival threatening American soil.
But the shift raises questions about whether the U.S. can meet its commitment to maintain a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific for decades — a matter not just of global prestige but also seen as critical for safeguarding shipping lanes vital for world trade and protecting allies.
China already has an innate geographical advantage in any conflict in the west Pacific. One expert posits that with its military buildup, China could conquer Taiwan by the end of the decade even if the U.S. military intervenes.
China regards Taiwan as part of its territory. Relations between the two, long seen as a potential flash point, have warmed in the past two years. But China's assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea, which it has declared as a "core interest" — essentially something it could go to war over — has spooked its neighbors and fortified their support for a strong U.S. presence in the region. Even former enemy Vietnam is forging military ties with the U.S.