With all the difficulties facing U.S. forces in Iraq, it’s easy to forget that the challenges there are modest compared to those a big military power could throw in the American direction.

Yet a little-noticed recent report by the secretary of defense to Congress serves as an alarming reminder that China (search) isn’t wasting any time building up militarily while the U.S. is otherwise occupied, and that the North Pacific power could present a formidable military challenge if in the future it became an outright foe.

Even as the Bush administration asks Congress for billions more in Iraq funds, it needs to keep focused on big-ticket, long-term investments that will prepare the military for a future, major military threat -- whether it be China or another power.

Among the areas of advancement for China, whose annual spending on defense is estimated at $45-$65 billion, and rising by 17 percent annually:

New means of projecting power beyond its borders: China has some 450 short-range ballistic missiles already deployed. It is expected to add about 75 missiles per year over the next few years, the report to Congress says. All of China’s missiles are believed to be targeted at Taiwan. (search) In addition, China is replacing all 20 of its intercontinental ballistic missiles -- capable of reaching the U.S. -- with longer-range versions. China is also working on a submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Pentagon report says.

Anti-access, or the ability to prevent U.S. vessels’ access to certain areas, or prevent aircraft access to airspace: China’s first two Sovremennyy class guided missile destroyers (search) from Russia have been integrated into the naval fleet, the report says. It also says that China is buying two more from Russia.

China has built a diesel electric sub and has bought four Kilo-class diesel subs (search) from Russia, with orders for eight more. China has produced a new nuclear-powered attack sub class called the Type 093 SSN (search), according to the report. In addition, China has plans over the next 10 years to acquire from Russia -- or develop with Russian help -- double-digit surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) (search) for a highly advanced SAM air defense system. 

Counter-space measures against satellites, other targets: China may have high-energy laser equipment that could be used to develop ground-based anti-satellite weapons, the report says.

Information warfare: Chinese info warriors stress computer and network warfare (search) and electronic security systems, among other things. The report says they have an “unusual emphasis on a host of new information warfare forces" instead of the “information superiority” and other approaches used in the U.S.

In addition, information-warfare (search) reserve units in several Chinese cities are developing “pockets of excellence” that could eventually expand to form a corps of “network warriors” to defend China’s information and telecoms networks while uncovering weaknesses in those of other countries, the report says.

The Pentagon needs to continue investing -- and in some cases begin investing -- in capabilities that will give the U.S. the upper hand, and that will allow the U.S. to target enemy systems that can be moved around and hidden, that are kept deep inland and out of current U.S. reach and those that target space. Among the investments the U.S. needs most:

A long-range, stealthy bomber: Currently, the U.S. has only 16 long-range stealthy B-2 bombers. The House Armed Services Committee has shown strong interest in supporting a new bomber program. Ideally, the fighter-obsessed Pentagon will quit dragging its feet and support a new long-range, stealthy bomber A.S.A.P. Only such an aircraft could penetrate enemy airspace, reach its target deep inland from a long distance away and deliver the kind of payload that would be necessary.

A long-range, stealthy reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV): The U.S. has long-range UAVs but not stealthy ones. Only a UAV with long range and stealth could operate in an environment where there are double-digit SAMS and in which it had to fly from a base far away, such as Guam, to a target deep inland.

More converted Trident subs: The cruise missiles (search) fired from converted, stealthy Trident submarines would be highly effective at hitting enemy targets without the enemy knowing whence the strike came. Even more effective would be faster, ballistic missiles fired at the targets. The idea of equipping the Tridents with those missiles should be explored, and a few more Tridents (search) should be converted to this missile application also.

Stealthy, long-range transport for special forces: If commandos need to operate behind enemy lines in the future, that enemy being China, only an aircraft that can fly from a base out of Chinese missile range and that can avoid Chinese air defenses will succeed in depositing the soldiers in country. The special forces don’t have such aircraft, and the Pentagon needs to invest in some.

Space defenses: These might include the means of taking out enemy ground-based lasers and of finding and disabling enemy micro-satellites. The U.S. has no such capabilities right now.

All that’s a tall order. But it’s essential that even as Iraq pulls at the Pentagon’s resources, it stays focused on the long-term competition -- because that’s what Beijing is doing.

Melana Zyla Vickers, a columnist for TechCentralStation.com, is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She is a former editorial-board member of USA Today, Canada's The Globe and Mail and The Asian Wall Street Journal, and a former editor at the Far Eastern Economc Review. She has a master's degree in strategic studies and economics from Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.