Assessment says Beijing may believe it can wage regional conflict while expanding global presence

U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson visited Beijing this week.

WASHINGTON—China’s military ambitions have given its leaders growing confidence about their capabilities, according to a new U.S. assessment that warns that Beijing may believe it can wage a regional conflict while maintaining its expanded global presence.

“We now have to be able to look for a Chinese military that is active everywhere,” said a senior defense official who briefed reporters on the new report by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.

Washington and Beijing are engaged in a trade fight, and tensions over Taiwan persist, although the official said there is no indication that China is looking to take military action anywhere soon.

“But they are present in a lot of places and we will have to interact with them, engage with them, deal with them, monitor them more broadly than we’ve ever had to before when they were very regionally focused and near their own shores.”

The report, called “China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win,” touches on potential threats, China’s military leadership, and national military command and control, among other issues. The Pentagon separately publishes an annual report mandated by Congress on Chinese military capabilities.

The Defense Intelligence Agency report found that in addition to traditional military advances, China is increasingly shifting attention to emerging security domains, particularly cyber and outer space.

The report assessed that the People’s Liberation Army remained far short of being able to deploy conventional military forces globally, but that Beijing could reach adversaries anywhere with its space, cyberspace and nuclear capabilities.

The report said that China had identified controlling information—or so-called “information dominance”—as a prerequisite for victory in a modern war. The report also warned of China’s improving antisatellite capabilities that could interfere with reconnaissance and communications systems in what would amount to an attack designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.”

Despite the advances, it isn’t clear to U.S. analysts when the country would be in a position to pursue both its regional and global military ambitions or to contemplate possible military action toward Taiwan.

“I think we still see that there are aspects to their training and their command structure that they still need to work on,” the official said.

The official said it is unclear whether any possible regional incursion would include amphibious ships, helicopters or airborne troops.

“There’s a lot of work that they’re still doing to try to work on those capabilities and we don’t have a real strong grasp on when they will think that they are confident in that capability,” the official said.

In Beijing on Tuesday, the American Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson met with military counterparts.

The Pentagon has long been concerned about China’s global ambitions, most particularly in the east African nation of Djibouti, where it has established a port and military base near a large contingent of U.S. forces and drone operations in nearby Camp Lemonnier.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Dustin Volz at dustin.volz@wsj.com

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