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The limits of Chinese military power

The US military is without peer in its ability to project power around the world, and that’s not about to change.

Collage of military vehicles
Collage of military vehiclesWikimedia commons

The United States spends more money on the military than any other nation on Earth—far more. This enormous budget— $649 billion—pays for the only global fighting force in the history of the world. But in the last 30 years, China has gone from spending about $20 billion each year on its military to spending about $250 billion each year. Does this mean that the era of American military dominance dating to the collapse of the Soviet Union is now drawing to a close? Or is American hegemony— whether for good or for ill— a reality that will persist in coming decades? It is, of course, impossible to predict the future, but examining the current state of key technologies that underpin America’s ability to globally project power shows just how large its lead is.

Total military spending of the top 10 countries in the world in billions of 2018 dollars

The size of America's lead in annual military spending obscures just how much this difference has accumulated over the decades. It is a difference not in the number of personnel, but in tanks, ships, airplanes, helicopters, satellites, and other military hardware, and in training and systems that enable all these machines and people to effectively work together. If one counts the number of people in it, China’s military is slightly larger than America’s.

Total Chinese and US uniformed military personnel

Depending on how one reckons—many smaller American bases are secret—the US has a military presence in between 50 and 80 countries around the world, dispersed among over 800 bases (many of which officially are called something else). As the New York Times estimates, about 200,000 American troops are deployed abroad.

By contrast, China has three foreign bases, in Djibouti, Tajikistan, and Cambodia. (The Djibouti base is openly acknowledged, while the other two are open secrets.) It also has substantial numbers of troops deployed as part of UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan.

Years of enormous military budgets have bought the US the ability to surveil the globe and project power. As its long, inconclusive engagement in Afghanistan proves, this doesn’t necessarily mean America will always prevail. But it has a unique expeditionary ability. Refueling aircraft and amphibious assault ships might not sound like the bleeding technological edge, but they are of crucial military importance.

More than any other single technology, aircraft carriers enable the American military to project force almost anywhere in the world. Some experts worry that they are vulnerable to attack by China. But as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute has pointed out, aircraft carriers are hard to find and tough to sink. As Thompson writes, "The bottom line is that China is nowhere near overcoming the hurdles required for successful attacks against US aircraft carriers."

China's ability to defend its borders and periphery has dramatically increased in recent decades. Newly-built artificial islands in the South China Sea function something like stationary aircraft carriers. China's small number of nuclear-powered submarines is offset, in part, by a large fleet of diesel-electrics. The balance of power in Asia is distinctly different than it was a generation ago.

But despite China's increase in military spending, the US continues to spend far more money. It's hard to take in just what $650 billion means.

Consider that in 2018 the US government paid Lockheed Martin (the largest defense contractor) $40.5 billion, considerably more than Brazil's total military budget of $30.7 billion. The minimum size of the classified US defense and intelligent budget is $81 billion, which is to say the US spends considerably more in secret than the entire Russian military budget of $61 billion. The total defense budget of Italy—the world's 8th-largest economy—is $26 billion. This is about the same as the annual amount of bureaucratic waste in Department of Defense spending ($25 billion) that McKinsey found in an audit it performed at the Pentagon's request. So calls for increases in US spending in order to keep pace with China should be met with skepticism.

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