How far is China's military reach? The answer depends on what it wants to do. A Chinese warship deployed to the Mediterranean this year, so, by that yardstick, global reach is at hand. But the isolated ship only supported civilian evacuations from Libya, and had no real military potential.

Pull focus back to 300 km (200 mi.) from China's coast and it is a different story: More than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles are ready to clear the way for around 2,000 increasingly modern aircraft. Zoom in a bit, and the airspace is dominated by powerful surface-to-air missile systems.

“China's power-projection capacity is in its early stage of development,” says analyst Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “It reduces rapidly with the distance from China's coastline.”

The key reason is that the capability has been shaped for the need to assault Taiwan, the farthest part of which is just a few hundred kilometers from the mainland. The trump card held against the island—short-range ballistic missiles—can fly only about 300 or 600 km and the unrefueled combat radius of Chinese fighters is similar. Less obvious but just as critical, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) get harder and costlier as the distance from the Chinese mainland increases.

Yet, a number of programs under way are providing the capability the country needs to fight intensively and farther—more than 1,000 km—from its shores. No single program makes China a regional superpower; they all add up to a gradual lengthening of military reach. In geopolitical terms, this means China's military strength is seeping further into the South China Sea, the scene of a territorial claim that ranks behind only Taiwan in importance. It will continue to seep.

An example is the Tomahawk-like DH-10 cruise missile. Although overshadowed in the Western media by China's ballistic missiles, it is credited with a range of more than 1,500 km and is more practicably usable against U.S. targets, because it is unlikely to be mistaken for a nuclear weapon. China has been turning out perhaps 100 DH-10s a year. An air-launched version carried by H-6 bombers could reach 3,300 km, enough to hit Guam, Okinawa and, from a regional perspective, all the way down the South China Sea, across the Indonesian archipelago and into the Indian Ocean.

The reach of the combat aircraft force is subtly lengthening as short-leg fighters based on Cold War Soviet types are retired while squadrons re-equip with J-10s and especially J-11s (Flankers), with their enormous internal fuel capacities. Fielding fighters with longer range not only gives China an ability to strike targets farther from its shores; the air cover means that Chinese warships can be brought into play at the same distances, and so can vulnerable aircraft such as maritime patrollers.

China's ability to fight enemy warships at a distance is rising, too. About 40 H-6Ds are assigned to the anti-ship role, although ISR is especially problematic for aircraft with such ranges, since the targets will move far while they and their missiles are in flight; their performance will benefit from China's growing constellation of ISR satellites. Distant combat also needs aircraft for airborne early warning and for detecting enemy radio emissions; such programs are under way.

Bolstering that effort, China is working on surveillance drones, and it shows interest in the class of very high-flying aircraft known as near-space vehicles—for command and control as well as ISR. The information gathered and passed by these systems stands to greatly boost the effectiveness of the one arm of the Chinese military that can already fight thousands of kilometers from home: the submarine service.

Closer to shore, China's naval aviation forces are probably looking forward to moving on from their fleet of 80 or so JH-7 attack aircraft and C-803K anti-ship missiles (ASM) to the much larger, stealthier and possibly super-cruising J-20, whose apparent size suggests a strike radius above 1,000 km, plus the range of its missile. A squadron of Su-30MK2s already has Russian supersonic Kh-31A ASMs. And then there is the DF-21D, a potentially revolutionary anti-ship ballistic missile. The Pentagon estimates it has a range of more than 1,500 km and is operational; China says it is still in development.

The possibility of a rapid improvement in Chinese air forces should not be discounted. The country has made quick leaps before—most notably with its nuclear and especially thermonuclear weapons programs in the 1960s, when far less money was available. There is reason to suspect that development of military aviation has been inhibited while resources have been thrown at the Second Artillery, the force that controls China's land-attack missiles.

A Chinese aircraft carrier is undergoing sea trials but is not in service. Like the first carrier for any country, it will initially be a training ship. Over the coming decade it will become a fighting ship, with gradually rising effectiveness, while more Chinese aircraft carriers are expected.

China's long-range air transport force is slight—just 10 Ilyushin Il-76s. This is probably because China would prefer to build its own airlifters. Avic has said it is developing one with a gross weight of 200 tons; an adaptation of the Il-76 seems likely. The efficiency of the aircraft will be limited by the available engines, widely thought to be Russian, but analyst Sash Tusa of Echelon Research and Advisory points out that the domestic CJ1000 Changjiang high-bypass turbofan proposed for the C919 158-seat airliner would be a good match for the new aircraft.

One of the key changes will be the rise of the Chinese aerial tanker fleet, currently thought to amount to fewer than 20 H-6Us, adaptations of the bomber with poor transferable fuel capacity. Eight Il-78 tankers were ordered in 2005, along with 30 Il-76s, but the contract has run into trouble. Obtaining those aircraft would be particularly important because they could refuel J-11s, which H-6Us apparently cannot, write Gabriel Collins, Michael McGauvran and Timothy White in Chinese Aerospace Power, a book published in July.

No more than a quarter of China's combat aircraft can be refueled in the air, but the faction is rising. So in that way, too, China's reach is gradually extending. “China's air-refueling program today appears primarily geared toward enhancing Beijing's ability to project power into the South China Sea,” say the same authors.

The C919 is too small to be an effective tanker, and its builder, Comac, is having enough trouble developing it for its primary role. Looking further out, a widebody, the C929, is planned, however.

It should be stressed that tanker developments are only speculated on at this stage. No specific plan for a new tanker has been revealed—and nor, for that matter, is there any sign of a Chinese heavy bomber.

The Chinese air force, at least, is thinking in terms of distances needed to cover the countries around the South China Sea. It has been working toward the ability “to conduct an air campaign within a 1,000-km radius of China's periphery by 2010—one that it has yet to realize fully—and to extend the range to 3,000 km by 2030,” according to U.S. researchers Mark Stokes and Ian Easton who, in Chinese Aerospace Power, cite Taiwanese analysis. The maritime claim is not the only explanation for that ambition; not only is Guam about 3,000 km from China, that distance also encompasses all of Indonesia. And even less of a range is needed for confronting India, whose territory is almost all within 2,000 km of its border with China.