A speech by Chinese leader Hu Jintao, who is head of the powerful Central Military Commission that oversees the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has attracted a fair amount of attention.

Western news reports note that Hu talked about the need to “accelerate its transformation and modernization in a sturdy way, and make extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security.” This has raised concern that China is preparing for conflict, perhaps in the context of the ongoing South China disputes, or with the impending Taiwan election in January 2012.

But Hu’s recent speech is actually more consistent with a longstanding set of themes that he has repeatedly emphasized. In 2004, Hu laid out the “new historic missions” for the PLA, including the need to engage in “army-building” (i.e., improving the military), while focusing more on overall national economic construction. Hu’s speech is also in line with the position laid out by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, that the PLA must move away from an emphasis on quantity and focus more on quality, i.e., high technology.

It is this latter aspect that merits more attention, because Chinese reports note that Hu subsequently met with the All-Army Military Equipment Conference (quanjun zhuangbei gongzuo huiyi). Hu apparently congratulated China’s weapons designers and manufacturers on their achievements in the previous 11th Five-Year Plan (2006–2010), even as he also exhorted them to improve their performance in the current 12th Five-Year Plan.

Considering some of the programs that were revealed in the course of the past five-year plan, including China’s new stealth fighter (the J-20), Chinese anti-satellite capabilities (highlighted by the 2007 ASAT test), and reports of anti-ship ballistic missiles achieving initial operational capability, as well as a range of new unmanned aerial vehicles, this suggests that the Chinese leadership expects even more advanced systems to be developed in the coming five years.

American leaders should bear this in mind as they contemplate the shape of future defense spending and preparations.