Every year the US Defence Department releases a Congressionally-mandated unclassified study called Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China. This year's edition was released earlier this week. 

China specialists tend to pay this document some attention and so does the media, for a few hours. But why should we care? Given it has been produced by the Pentagon, which we might assume has some bureaucratic interest in hyping the China threat, should we even take Military and Security Developments 2013 seriously?

Certainly there are historical reasons to doubt the Pentagon's motives and its assessments. During the Reagan era, the Pentagon's annual Soviet Military Power report became something of a byword for sensationalism and threat inflation. It was filled with exaggerated statistics for the number and performance of Soviet weapons, featured lurid descriptions of the USSR's sinister ambitions for world domination, and was illustrated with maps showing fat red arrows emanating from the Soviet Union and stretching into the heart of Western Europe and the Atlantic.

By contrast, this annual China survey is sober, realistic and even recognises the debate inside China about its role in the world – there's no sense here of a monolithic and implacable force out to conquer the earth. The paper is even modestly self-aware, in that it acknowledges to some degree the role the US itself might be playing in Chinese threat perceptions and military modernisation. Granted, there are limits. The document notes, for instance, that 'defense against stealth aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles is...a growing priority' for China, without making the obvious point about which country might be driving such prioritisation.

So what kind of military force is Military and Security Developments 2013 describing? Well, despite the temperate language, the trends outlined in the paper are actually quite disturbing for the US and its friends and allies in the Asia Pacific. Let's look at naval power, since navies are the foremost means by which countries can project their power and influence away from their borders.

To understand China's ambitions in this domain, consider a crude global ranking of naval powers. At present, the US is so far out in front at no.1 that second place is basically unoccupied (except if we're talking about sea-based nukes, where the US and Russia are roughly equal). The UK and France occupy third place in the rankings and China is presently on the fourth rung alongside Russia, Japan and India.

Even fourth place is an achievement for China. Back in the early '90s, when its military modernisation drive really began, China was arguably a weaker naval power than its own 'renegade province', Taiwan. This latest Pentagon report describes a country that can already boast modern fighting ships that put it ahead of regional rivals Japan and South Korea by some metrics.

But what is most striking is that Beijing is now on its way to developing naval capabilities that will put China firmly – and solely — into second place on the world standings, well short of American capabilities but in another weight class to powers such as the UK, France, Russia, Japan and India.

Consider, for instance, China's plans to develop aircraft carriers. China commissioned its first carrier last year, an extensively modified ex-Soviet vessel, and this edition of the Pentagon's report says China will 'probably build several' of its own carriers over the next 15 years. Contrast that with trends in long-standing carrier nations, where capability is in decline: France (now unlikely to get a companion ship for its single carrier), the UK (no carriers at present; building two very capable ships but under such severe budget strain that they may not both make it into service) and India (one 1950s-built carrier in service; Russian shipbuilders struggling to supply another). The plans for procurement of other major classes of warships outlined in Military and Security Developments 2013 (up to 20 Yuan-class submarines and a dozen Type-052D destroyers) would also put China securely into second place worldwide.

China is not content with second place in every regard. Military and Security Developments 2013 talks of a country intent on creating a 'wholly indigenous defense industrial sector', a colossal ambition and something not even the US can boast. It raises the prospect of industrial nationalism and rent seeking on a scale that could actually be quite debilitating for the Chinese economy.

But what's it all for? Ranking countries by their military might is wonkish fun for observers, but it's surely not what drives China. Military power has to have a purpose beyond mere status, right? Certainly, yes, though don't underestimate the attractions of status. Military and Security Developments 2013 notes that 'securing China's status as a great power' is a core strategic objective for China's leadership.

Beyond status, China's growing maritime muscle will give Beijing the means to coerce regional neighbours and will change the strategic balance in the Asia Pacific from one of uncontested US primacy to one of rough balance. Whether China continues its recent habit of asserting itself in territorial disputes with neighbours or it takes a more cooperative path, the very fact of China's growing strength will demand some kind of response from the US and its friends and allies. As the recent Carnegie study on China's Military and the US-Japan Alliance in 2030 puts it, the status quo is unsustainable.

The question is whether the US and its allies insist on maintaining US primacy by matching or surpassing China's military growth and accompanying this with an offensively-oriented strategy, or whether they are content to see US-led primacy eroded gradually in favour of a more cooperative (though at times tense) form of balancing.

(BTW: Anyone who can identify the TV reference in the headline wins my undying respect. UPDATE: I doff my cap to reader Richard, who guessed it within five minutes of the post going live.)

Photo by Flickr user i am le petit oiseau.