Military power and defense policy are topics in which few people have much knowledge, and yet these issues tend to be extremely polarizing and conveyed through superlatives. From hypernationalists declaring their nation’s military to be the best in the world to ardent leftists decrying any form of defense spending as little more than backdoor support for violent imperialism, discussions of the military tend to easily provoke a rise out of people. I think this is particularly true for those invested in American or Chinese military policy, as both countries are immensely powerful and contain their fair share of nationalists. If you don’t believe me, just read the YouTube comment sections in cheesy videos like this one.
But this silly posturing frequently obscures more than it reveals, and it tends to draw in the painfully uninformed. Indeed, when I discuss China with Americans unfamiliar with the country, I tend to get two diametrically opposed views. The first is an antediluvian and fairly racist view of China as a backward country only good at producing cheap manufactures of very low quality. The other view inverts the error by ascribing all kinds of absurd civilizational advantages to China and its communist leadership, thus portraying the country and its leaders as far more capable than they actually are. So, what are China’s military advantages, and what are the challenges it faces in a potential showdown with the United States?
China possesses two extremely important assets: its economic growth and its position in the world. With annual GDP growth rates between 5%-7%, China has ever-growing budgets with which to expand and modernize its forces. With Chinese defense outlays having grown every year for the past quarter-century, Beijing now enjoys the second-largest military budget in the world at around $250 billion (at 2018 rates). For comparison, the next largest spender, India, devotes only around $70 billion. The American defense budget is still over 2.5 times larger than Beijing’s, but China has steadily been closing the gap. Moreover, China faces much lower costs than the United States, which means that the apparently sizeable spending gap between the two countries is significantly overstated. Controlling for purchasing power parity, Chinese defense outlays are actually twice as large as market exchange rates would suggest. In other words, while China spends much less than the United States, its money goes much further due to lower Chinese labor costs and cheaper intermediate goods. The result is that China gets more bang for its buck, both in terms of procurement and sustainment.
China also benefits from catch-up growth in the defense sector. For decades, Chinese leaders downplayed the importance of the military, choosing instead to focus on economic growth and liberalization. The result was a military force riddled with graft and poorly managed. Indeed, throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, the PLA operated a range of enterprises, including grocery stores and export-import companies, to raise revenues. But having your military concentrate on the produce trade is not generally an effective way to maintain a combat-ready force. After the annihilation of the Iraqi army in 1991, however, China realized it needed to comprehensively modernize its military if it were to stand a chance against the United States. This message was further reinforced during the Straits Crisis, in which the U.S. deployed two carrier battle groups completely unopposed to Taiwan in a show of force designed to publically reveal Beijing’s impotence. In some ways, modernization has been a challenge for Beijing, as the country began so far behind the world’s leading military powers. But China has also benefited from its ability to buy, emulate, and steal other countries’ technology and tactics. Whereas the U.S. is constantly having to spend enormous amounts of money to maintain its position on the cutting edge, China is able to simply appropriate hard-earned U.S. innovations for itself at relatively low cost.
China also benefitted from fortuitous timing. Just as Beijing began to pursue military modernization in earnest, the Soviet Union collapsed. The result was the emergence of a cash-strapped Russia willing to sell anything and everything to boost its paltry revenue. Beijing capitalized on this by buying up all sorts of cutting-edge Soviet military technology, which allowed the PLA to both improve its capabilities and reverse-engineer multiple advanced technologies. Russia has since become much more cautious about the systems it shares with Beijing, but the initial influx of Soviet technology provided an important jumpstart to Chinese modernization. China is still not quite at the technological frontier, and it especially struggles with the production of jet engines and computer chips. Nevertheless, Beijing has consistently exceeded expectations, and it now leads the U.S. in several technological areas, such as AI and nuclear hypersonics.
Finally, China’s military has an important advantage in that it is able to focus almost exclusively on the defense of the Chinese homeland. In contrast to the U.S., which has global obligations and is thus forced to disperse its forces around the world, China is able to concentrate the vast preponderance of its military at home. This limits logistical challenges and also means that China would likely be able to bring more forces to bear in a Pacific contingency, at least in the initial stages of the conflict. As China continues to grow and expand its global presence, this advantage will slowly erode. However, it will be many years before China approaches the global presence of the U.S. military (and it may never).
But despite these significant advantages, China also faces several major impediments. The first is the PLA’s complete lack of recent combat experience: the PLA has not fought a war since its invasion of Vietnam in 1979, which it utterly bungled. To be sure, the evidence linking recent combat experience to battlefield effectiveness is mixed, but several studies suggest that units and commanders with combat experience derive at least marginal advantages from it. The U.S. has also gone decades without fighting a major power rival, of course, but it has fought almost continuous low-intensity conflicts since 1945. While this is not the same thing as engaging in great power war, it does provide the U.S. with the opportunity to refine important skills like casualty evacuation and battlefield medicine, military logistics, the penetration and destruction of integrated air defense systems, and coalition and joint warfighting. Across a range of skills, therefore, the U.S. is significantly more skilled and experienced, likely giving American soldiers and planners a decided edge.
China also suffers from an overabundance of extremely antiquated military platforms. Although it is rapidly expanding budgets and acquiring ever more advanced systems, it still possesses a huge inventory of outmoded and ineffective equipment. To put it differently, while the best Chinese systems are starting to approach the capability level of their American counterparts, the average Chinese platform is still decidedly inferior simply due to the fact that the U.S. has been developing and procuring cutting-edge systems for far longer. It is unclear how important this would be in a protracted conflict, especially given China’s larger industrial capacity and greater ability to replace attrited forces. But in a brief, sharp conflict, America’s superior capabilities might prove decisive.
Finally, China faces an unenviable geographic position. Surrounded by U.S. allies and partners – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Thailand – China’s regional predominance is not nearly as substantial as it at first appears. Indeed, when one accounts for Japan’s powerful navy and air force as well as South Korea’s exceptionally professional military, it is not at all clear that China has much of a regional advantage at all. Of course, it is not inevitable that the U.S. will have the support of its allies in a conflict, but if they were to support the U.S. then American forces would enjoy a clear advantage. China, by contrast, has only two “allies,” North Korea and Pakistan. These dysfunctional and corrupt partners are mostly more trouble than they are worth. They offer few tangible advantages to China and risk pulling Beijing into otherwise avoidable wars with India, South Korea, and the United States.
But Chinese problems do not end here, as the maritime geography that confronts China is perhaps even more damaging than the regional alliance network. Boxed in by the first island chain of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, Chinese naval forces have few outlets to the open ocean. Even worse, all of these chokepoints are controlled by U.S. allies, granting the U.S. military a powerful strategic advantage in the region. The problem is particularly acute for China’s submarine forces, as its movement is severely constrained. This allows the U.S. to install SOSUS around key transit points and track Chinese submarines with ease. Consequently, China’s undersea deterrent is extremely vulnerable to attack, especially from the highly capable ASW platforms of the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. American submarines, by contrast, enjoy easy access to the open ocean, making them nearly impossible to detect, track, and destroy. They are also much quieter and more technologically advanced, giving them key qualitative edges even as China continues to expand its undersea forces.
Much has been made about Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities like the DF-21d anti-ship ballistic missile, but it is worth noting that these kinds of systems are not the exclusive domain of the Chinese. The United States Marine Corps, for example, has recently begun developing a new operational concept that seeks to disperse small units armed with anti-ship missiles around the Pacific to create large exclusion zones. If Japan and South Korea follow suit, the U.S. and its allies could easily target Chinese naval assets within the first and second island chains, especially given that American C3ISR is substantially better than that of China, making it easier for the U.S. to find and track Chinese aircraft and ships. An exclusion zone in the East China Sea might keep the U.S. Navy out, but it would also prevent the PLAN or civilian cargo ships from safely transiting, which could absolutely devastate China’s resource-dependent economy. To get an idea of the consequences, consider WWI, where the Central Powers were almost completely cut off from the global economy by British naval dominance. The resource constraints and deprivation this created did not win the war for Britain and France, but they substantially stacked the conflict in favor of the Entente.
As this admittedly short and non-comprehensive article demonstrates, the military balance between the U.S. and China is extremely complicated. China has many advantages as a dynamic, growing economy with a large population and resource base. It is able to grow and modernize its force far faster than the U.S., and it can replace wartime losses at a far greater rate. Moreover, as a powerful but still developing military, the PLA is able to selectively invest in cutting-edge technology while simply stealing the expensive and hard-earned advances of rival militaries. China, with its far fewer global commitments, is also able to deploy a much greater percentage of its forces at home, giving it logistical and numerical advantages. Of course, by choosing to fight on its home turf China opens up its cities and people to attack. China also faces many capable American allies and deeply unfavorable geography, which mitigates its many advantages, and its forces are far less experienced and likely meaningfully inferior to American personnel.
The reality is that both the U.S. and China have much to lose in a war, and there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the outcome of a future conflict. The U.S. will remain the world’s predominant military power for the foreseeable future, but this may not matter. After all, the U.S. has global commitments, and the Chinese military could become regionally dominant in Asia even as it maintains its second-place position at the global level. There are also many emerging technologies like hypersonics and cyberweapons that could be extremely transformational (or not), and nobody will be able to know with certainty until they are deployed. As with most complex topics, caution and intellectual humility are key when thinking about a potential Sino-American military conflict. Most thinkers probably get some things correct, but it is doubtful that any analyst is entirely correct about what a war would look like. Therefore, I would recommend reading widely on the topic and thinking about discrete subcomponents of the arguments instead of focusing on any one grand narrative or prediction. China and its military are incredibly interesting topics, but they are interesting precisely because there is so much that is still unknown – that is something worth keeping in mind.