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The dragon sharpens its claws

No one is crying war between the U.S. and China. But many are preparing for it.

Taiwanese troops respond to a mock Chinese invasion, January 2009 (Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost).

TAIPEI — It's the stuff of dark sci-fi scenarios; the war that nobody wants.

But the most recent Pentagon report on China's military power — released last week — shows how high the stakes have become, in the unlikely event the United States and China ever do come to blows.

China has the world's fastest-growing military. It is building state-of-the art fighter jets, destroyers, and anti-ship missiles worth billions of dollars. It's just confirmed it will build an aircraft carrier.

And according to the Pentagon, it's now fielding a new nuclear force able to "inflict significant damage on most large American cities."

Most disturbing, Chinese military officials have publicly threatened to use that capability against the United States — in a conflict over Taiwan.

"China doesn't just threaten war, it threatens nuclear war," said John Tkacik, a China expert and former U.S. diplomat, at a forum in Taipei last weekend. "This is the kind of thing that rattles cages in the U.S."

For now, Taiwan is the only plausible cause of military conflict between the world's superpower and the rising Asian giant.

Taiwan insists it's an independent state. Beijing sees it as Chinese territory that must one day end its democratic "holiday" and return to the fold.

The U.S. has a commitment, albeit an ambiguous one, to help defend Taiwan's democracy against Chinese aggression.

That means U.S. Marines, sailors and pilots could one day, perhaps suddenly, be sent to take on Asia's most lethal military, all for the sake of a small island which few Americans can distinguish from Thailand.

The good news: most experts agree that conflict will probably never happen.

U.S. diplomacy has helped keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait for 60 years. And tensions have eased in the past year with the election of a Taiwan president who is forging better relations with Beijing.

Chinese and Taiwanese media reported this week that the two sides' militaries will both attend a conference in Hawaii this summer.

Still, the pessimists at the Pentagon must plan for the worst. Their concerns are written down in black and white in the report.

The worry isn't a full-blown war, which would be a lopsided contest. Despite China's rapid rise, it remains far behind America in war-fighting capabilities, technology, logistical know-how and military budgets.