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Chinese sailors render honors to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during a visit to the People's Liberation Army Navy hospital ship Peace Ark on Nov. 30, 2012.

Chinese sailors render honors to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during a visit to the People's Liberation Army Navy hospital ship Peace Ark on Nov. 30, 2012. (Sam Shavers/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — China is pouring money into increasingly sophisticated military capabilities, including the first deployment of a new ballistic missile designed to knock out ships as big as aircraft carriers, according to a Pentagon report released Monday.

China’s rising defense outlays might have topped $200 billion for the first time in 2012, even though its declared military spending was around half that much, according to the Defense Department’s annual report to Congress on the country’s military capabilities.

The report said Chinese defense spending may have reached as much as $215 billion last year, representing an increase of nearly 20 percent from the Pentagon’s upper-range estimate of $180 billion in the previous year’s report.

Such growth doesn’t yet put China in the same league as the United States, which has a DOD budget that will approach $600 billion this year even after the effects of sequestration. But while the U.S. defense budget is contracting, China’s has been growing steadily.

“China’s investing across the board,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.

Winning an intense, regional war in in the Taiwan Strait remains China’s top defense priority, the report says.

The new DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which the Pentagon said for the first time in the report has been deployed, could be key if such a conflict broke out. Helvey did not say if the Pentagon knows how many of the so-called “carrier killers” have been deployed, and said the Pentagon is not sure the satellite guidance system for the missiles is yet operational.

The ASBM is one of a number of weapons China is developing to keep potential adversaries like the United States at bay in the case of a regional war. Others include new generations of stealth fighters and cyberwar capabilities.

“The issue here is not one particular weapons system,” Helvey said. “It’s the integration and overlapping nature of these weapons systems into a regime that can potentially impede or restrict free military operations in the Western Pacific.”

But as China’s profile as a burgeoning superpower rises, it’s also looking beyond potential conflicts near its territory to focus on a wider range of missions, including “counter-piracy, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and regional military operations,” the report said.

Some of the new missions and capabilities could be aimed at strengthening China’s hand in tense territorial disputes it has with neighbors, including Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, the report said.

But, Helvey said, the Chinese military’s growing international engagement could be an opportunity for the country to build stronger ties with the U.S. and with its Asian neighbors.

Elsewhere in the report released Monday, the Pentagon said China continues to steal U.S. defense technology and trade secrets to modernize its military, using a “large, well-organized network of enterprises, defense factories, affiliated research institutes, and computer network operations to facilitate the collection of sensitive information and export-controlled technology, as well as basic research and science that supports U.S. defense system modernization.” Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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