China’s Military and Growing Political Power

Yves here. This post suggests that China has the potential to challenge the US on a military basis at a lower relative cost than many defense analysts assume. It is also worth noting that China’s military ambitions for the foreseeable future are regional. Thus it is not hard to foresee that China could become dominant in what it considers to be its sphere of influence at a comfortably affordable level of expenditure, or alternatively, force the US into higher levels of spending to prevent China from securing that standing at a time when the US is already overextended.

By Peter E. Robertson, Professor of Economics, University of Western Australia. Originally published at VoxEU

The Soviets matched the US only by spending up to 20% of GDP on the military during the Cold War. This column argues that, in stark contrast to this example, China has the potential to match the US in certain military spheres with similar burden on its economy. Using exchange rates comparisons significantly understates the Chinese military spending. A much more realistic assessment is obtained using PPP terms. If both countries spent the same fraction of their GDP on the military, the relative size of China’s military machine would be more than 90% of the US one.

China’s rapid economic growth has led to a spate of comparisons between the sizes of the economies of China and the US. Authors wishing to make China look big use exchange rates adjusted for local prices.

Frankel (2014) argues that GDP converted at market exchange rates is a better measure of economic power since international spending power but not local spending power is what matters. Specifically, comparisons based on market exchange rate are appropriate for measuring the importance of a country in the world economy, such as the national share of world demand, the impact on financial markets, and international voting rights.

  • As Frankel notes, since the market exchange rate is approximately half the value of the purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rate, the US remains the world’s largest economic power by a substantial margin.

But another aspect of China’s rise is its rising military strength. Its military budget has grown at double digit rates for 20 years. The wider political economy implications of China’s rise also depend on this military muscle (Mearsheimer 2006, Friedberg 2011, Kaplan 2014). As evidenced by Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, this is already changing the balance of power in Asia, and the US foreign policy response (Clinton 2011, The Economist 2012).

But how should we compare this spending in RMB to the US military budget? Will market exchange rates or PPP exchange rates give a more accurate comparison of relative real military spending in each country?

Military Spending in China and the US

In a recent paper, (Robertson and Sin 2015), we show that China’s military budget was 18% of that of the US using market exchange rate comparisons, but 33% of the one of the US using PPP exchange rates. In addition, China spends only around 2% of its GDP on the military, compared to 5% by the US. If China raised its military spending to GDP ratio to the US level, it would be close to par with the US in PPP terms, but still far behind it in terms of market exchange rates.

Such large differences due to exchange rate choices cause anxiety in the Pentagon. It is a ‘known unknown’ that has been flagged many times by, for example, the Rand Corporation, the US Department of Defence, and military statistical abstracts such as the IISS and SIPRI (Crane et al. 2006, US Department of Defence 2011, IISS 2012, SIPRI 2012).

Frankel also points out that the market exchange rate matters for military power. He gives the example of China’s ability to project power in the South China Sea, which depends on its ability to purchase naval capacity. Likewise, China imports the latest generation anti-ship missiles from Russia.

But military spending more generally has a large domestic component. Around 1/3 of China’s military budget is spent on personnel – all of whom are paid substantially lower wages than their US equivalents – even after adjusting for differences in training. So, in this case it is not obvious whether market exchange rates or PPP exchange rate comparisons give a more accurate perspective.

A Military Unit Cost Exchange Rate

The correct exchange rate with which to compare military spending would be a price or unit cost ratio of military services in each country. We, therefore, tackle this problem by developing Tornqvist and Fisher price indices applied to data on broad military budget shares for personnel, equipment, and operations spending.

In accordance with Frankel’s arguments above, we use market exchange rates as a measure of relative military equipment costs facing each country since most equipment, or close substitutes, is tradable. For relative operations costs, however, we use PPP exchange rates as a reasonable proxy since the operations budget represents a bundle of traded and non-traded goods and services.

Finally, relative personnel costs are obtained using manufacturing wages, either gross or net of on-costs, since this represents the social opportunity cost of military employment.

Even after adjusting for differences in average schooling, we find that these differences in personal costs are very large. Because of this, our resulting relative military cost (RMC) exchange rates are very low. Thus, while the market exchange rate in 210 was around 6.8 RMB per dollar, and the PPP exchange rate was 3.7 RMB per dollar, we obtain a relative military cost exchange rate of 2.9 RMB per dollar.

This low relative military costs exchange rate implies a real value of China’s military spending of 40% of the US in real terms – larger than the level implied by using PPP rates of 33%, and much larger than the market exchange rate based figure of 18%. Moreover, if both countries spent the same fraction of their GDP on the military, the relative size of China’s military machine is over 90% of the one of the US.

One strength of our method is that it allows for the fact that the US uses more equipment-intensive techniques and China uses labour-intensive techniques. Thus, it avoids substitution bias associated with fixed basked approaches. Moreover, it can also be readily calculated with minimal data.

One caveat is that the method assumes the technology for combing inputs –but not the inputs choice – is the same in both countries. But even allowing for say, a 10%-20% productivity advantage in the US due, for example, to less corruption and better procurement practices, it would still leave a very large estimate of real spending that would be closer to the PPP estimate of China’s military spending.


We find that converting China’s military spending in RMB to dollars using market exchange rates will dramatically understate its real size. A more realistic assessment shows that China’s real spending is closer to the value implied by PPP exchange rates.

This economic measure of military strength is important because it shows that China has the potential to match the US in certain military spheres with a similar burden on its economy. This is in stark contrast to the Soviets’ cold war strategy, where they matched the US only by spending up to 20% of GDP on the military.

So, in terms of military spending, China is ‘number 2’ but only by a small and shrinking margin. This will matter a great deal in terms of its ability to enforce territorial claims and achieve its foreign policy objectives. In these terms, China’s ability to wield international political power would seem to be very close to that of the US.

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  1. ltr

    The point is that China is already militarily beyond any possible intimidation by the United States, what matters now and from here is economic ability.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Money* is power and more money means more power.

      *Money here refers to global reserve money. Don’t leave home without it. Ironically, the nature of global reserve currency is such that the money will always flow to others…in case, heavily concentrated to one exporting hegemon. That’s how Nature balances herself, I guess.

    2. Jim Haygood

      Unfortunately the US has already taken Japan, an historical antagonist of China, under its defense umbrella.

      Oh, no … we forgot to demobilize from WW II! Three generations on, it may still be possible to salvage defeat from the jaws of victory, by getting involved in another Asian war that need not concern the US.

    3. Lexington

      The point is that China is already militarily beyond any possible intimidation by the United States

      Yup, and it has been since it detonated its first atomic weapon in 1964.

      Kind of like North Korea.

      There’s a lesson there for countries that want to avoid becoming victims of America’s global adventurism…

    4. ltr

      The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has an overwhelming potential and country after country has applied to the bank these last few days with scarcely a mention in the formal American media.

      As for China, we need to understand what it means for a country to have grown at 8.7% yearly in real per capita GDP from 1977 through 2013, with 2014 about to come in at 7% per capita growth. Real GDP in China has grown by 9.7% yearly these last 38 years. No recession just growth beyond any recorded national experience since 1800.

    5. ltr

      Again, imagine what it means for a country to had had real per capita GDP growth of 8.7% years for 37 straight years. Another terrific year in 2014 will be recorded shortly, and along with the growth in per capita GDP there has been dramatic growth in productivity.

      China is a country that will have completed 15,000 kilometers of high speed rail lines in 2015, while the United States has no high speed rail line yet. The 2 countries are nearly the same size. The American press revels in China bashing stories so that we miss the startling accomplishments, but we really should be paying attention independently.

    6. ltr

      One caveat is that the method assumes the technology for combing inputs –but not the inputs choice – is the same in both countries. But even allowing for say, a 10%-20% productivity advantage in the US due, for example, to less corruption and better procurement practices, it would still leave a very large estimate of real spending that would be closer to the PPP estimate of China’s military spending….

      — Peter Robertson

      [ I suggest look at productivity growth in China, the increase has been startling. Again, we need to look fairly at how well Chinese planners have managed for nearly 4 decades. ]

  2. C

    I have always been sckeptical of the assumptions that we just spent the soviets into the ground militarily. Their high budget military was a function of their autocratic social structure as much as anything else and the high costs relative to their other GDP was a function of their own state organization as well. While I have no doubt that the arms race didn’t help I see no reason to believe they did everything for our sake. That is just a comforting story that neocons like to tell themselves.

    The key takeaway that I get from this is that it should put the nail in the coffin of the Neocon’s military strategy that was so heavily embraced by Mitt Romney. As basic math will show simply buying a crapload of new ships and missiles won’t make much of a difference as: a) China has shown no interest in trying to match us missile for missile; and b) they can do so more cheaply than we can. Thus prudent spending not wiping out Libya is the answer.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Even more simply, it’s a lot cheaper to defend your own borders than to ‘project power’ on the other side of the planet — an enterprise that’s as likely to fail for economic reasons as military ones (as the prompt, wholesale dismantling of the British empire after WW II demonstrated).

      But the ‘US exceptionalist’ mentality is simply incapable of minding its own business and refraining from butting unsolicited into other nations’ affairs. If Laurence Kotlikoff is right that the US empire has a negative net worth of $200 trillion, one of these days a little liquidity glitch will shut down its global domination poseur act faster than anyone imagined possible.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      This post is troubling. Spending levels seem a very poor measure for relative military strength.

      Echoing Jim Haygood: China appears to be spending on means to project its power into its local region. The United States is spending so it can project power anywhere in the world. Projecting power within your locale is much less expensive than projecting power thousands of miles away.

      The military goals of the United States are broad and ranging, compared with what seem to be the much more focused Chinese goals. Broader goals usually lead to a diffusion of spending across means for meeting those goals.

      Continuing Steven’s theme: How much money is spent is less important than what the money buys. The United States could spend a lot of “defense” dollars on F-35 aircraft, and/or bigger aircraft carriers and submarines ending up with a fleet of flying turkeys and some large floating targets. It’s my impression of American defense spending that lining defense contractor pockets drives what is purchased. The effectiveness of those purchases toward meeting military goals seems all too often secondary.

      An initial encounter with the Chinese would likely involve a naval conflict. The US Navy has been a support player for our numerous wars since World War II. It hasn’t really been tested in any naval encounters since World War II. Its relative effectiveness in engaging with the Chinese, in Chinese waters, could prove embarrassing and expensive. Relative levels of spending could have far less importance to the outcome of a conflict than which side better understands the nature of the engagement and crafts the best strategy and tactics for using what they have. I hold the US Navy and its officers and men in very high regard but that cannot entirely allay my concerns.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I forgot to add another factor to consider. If China stopped shipments of goods to the United States, as would happen in the event of a conflict, it would hurt their economy. But it would cripple, perhaps effectively shut our economy down. Who would cry Uncle first? The Chinese, defending their regional interests, or the United State, defending their imperial interests? Relative spending levels on the military would have nothing to do with the matter.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeed

          Reminds one of the victory by little nothing Japan over the imperialistic bear, Russia in 1905.

          The other factor is the length of any potential conflict. Adm. Yamamoto feared a protracted war. We controlled and still control oil, peak oil as it is. But can we rally the American people to again accept rationing, of saying, smartphones, defective drywalls or laminate flooring?

        2. Steven

          Somewhere I read in an article that the smart money was advising the Defense Department to follow Google’s example and learn to live with globalization. If it follows that advise, it would seem prudent to refrain from pissing the rest of the globe off (or blowing it up).

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            For that (not to p!ss people off), we need our cultural/pop art/entertainment soldiers.

            Having the global reserve language also helps. To speak a language, you have to think like the native speakers (the mental aspect)…there’s your built-in advantage, unless you squander it away. How many youths in the world want to be like our stars? How many want to be like Chinese celebrities (depth and breadth wise)?

    3. Pepsi

      The “reagan beat ussr by spending money on totally useless military projects” line is just a fucking lie. The USSR failed because of a serious of semi market reforms + the oil crisis ruined their economy. A bit less military spending would have only paused the eventual collapse.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Maybe also because their youths wanted to party like their Western counterparts, the CIA might make that claim.

  3. Jef

    Name the only Country to drop atomic bombs on whole civilian populations killing hundreds of thousands?

    Tough act to follow

  4. Steven

    I don’t have anything to offer on this subject but a theory. I’d appreciate hearing from someone who actually knows something about the subject. Here goes …

    What’s important is not how but what you count. The real source of national power is human capital, specifically in the area of science and technology. From the get-go, of course, China has a much larger potential in this area than the U.S. What counts is how much national wealth and energy are spent developing this ‘capital’ – and this isn’t just about formal education. While the West (and particularly the US) is busy making money and its ‘best and brightest’ (who can still afford an education) are busy training themselves to become ‘financial engineers’, China, India and other developing nations – the workshops of the world – are making ‘things’. The skills acquired doing so are a much more important source of national power than those required for a career in financial engineering – basically the ability to – as Michael Hudson puts it – make it look like debts that can’t be repaid somehow will be. (Give me access to the Fed’s computers and I will create all the money you want at a fraction of the price charged by Wall Street’s hedge fund managers.)

    As Ruskin said, a logical definition of wealth is absolutely needed for the basis of economics if it is to be a science.

    Soddy, Frederick M.A., F.R.S.. Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt (Kindle Locations 1883-1884). Distributed Proofreaders Canada.

    Hint: it ain’t money. As for what it (wealth) is, well, take a look at the last 300 years of history and something called the Industrial Revolution. Take a look at why Japan and Germany were able to recover in short order from being bombed back into the stone age during WWII. Take a look at the GI Bill in this country and the really great workforce training program run by the Dept. of War (er, I mean Defense) until the bean counters took over with their attempts to squeeze every last short-term nickel out of the War (er, I mean Defense) budget – unless, of course, the money was going to some Congressional crony capitalist constituent.

    I could go on but it isn’t like you haven’t heard it all a thousand times before.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeed

      Japan and Germany…recovered in short order – by incorporating themselves into the new world, critical for our post war ascendancy…through not our wealth, but our money.

      Science and technology – for that, we have to count Israel, Western Europe, particularly Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and to some extent, Japan, Taiwan and Korea in our ‘base,’ through joint developments, unforced labor of scientific/technological workers, or industrial spying. China may rely on Russia, perhaps

      1. Steven

        This here is just plain ole America-bashing – and ignoring the first 25 years of post-WWII history. The list of technology that DIDN’T come from Israel, Western Europe, etc is too long to mention here. And after a little prodding which nation was the first to land on the moon, etc? (Post 1970 you may have more of a point.) You are being a little vague with “new world”. Did you mean the post-WWII “New World Order”, the “American Century” (the U.S. version of the 1000 year Reich?) If so, you might want to recall which country it was that tried to incorporate Chrysler into it’s flagship auto company, which country it was that put US electronics companies out of business, etc. I suppose another way of asking the question is “who is incorporating themselves into who’s world?”

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Why would it be America-bashing to say our camp is bigger?

          As for the new world order (sorry, forgot to type ‘order’ earlier), I was reminded the other day about hierarchy, fortune and the fact that the whole world is our supply chain (Don’t leave home without your American Dollars).

        2. bob

          Agreed. Old joke-

          Why don’t the brits make computer chips?

          They couldn’t figure out a way to make them leak oil.

          The freeing up of a ton of what we today would call “intellctual property”, in america, pre and post wars, was a major part of real honest to goodness Innovation.

          We’re building back toward the empire model of that, though. Protect the incumbent tech at all cost, and heavy rent.

          1. Steven

            An oldie but a goodie (I hadn’t heard it but what else is new?)…

            The freeing up of a ton of what we today would call “intellctual property”, in america, pre and post wars, was a major part of real honest to goodness Innovation.

            Are you talking American “intellectual property” as the foundation of global “real honest to goodness innovation”?

            We’re building back toward the empire model of that

            Bring back good old capitalist “creative destruction” – NOT the kind practiced by lawyers, finance capitalists and the Pentagon!

    2. jgordon

      Science and technology is not a monolithic entity, nor is it the magic bullet. At best, better technology allows a short term advantage to whoever uses it at the cost of long-term ecological and social destruction. China is trading its long term viability in exchange for being temporarily at par with the US with regards to economic and military power (whose empire is already in steep decline). Although I think the Chinese will be better able to cope with the wreckage that the failed industrial project leaves behind; they have a long cultural history of strong family bonds and an endurance of strife and deprivation. Americans on the other hand will all likely start shooting each other the moment their cheese doodles and soap operas are taken away–and this mentality of course is reflected in American “leadership”.

  5. Jim

    Extensive psychometric testing indicates an average IQ of 107-108 in Japan and South Korea, Although we don;’t have as much data on China, 90% of its population is Han Chinese who are not terribly genetically different from Koreans and Japanese so an estimate of average Chinese IQ as 105 is not unreasonable. The average IQ of the US population will likely decline in the future as the Mestizo component of the US population increases. The average IQ of Mexican Mestizos is about 90.

      1. Jim

        Behavioral genetic studies indicate that roughly 50%-70% of the variation in human behavioral traits is genetic. Most of the rest of the variation is due to what is called “non-shared environment” ie environmental factors not shared between siblings. The traditional “nurture” factors – family structure, SES, schooling etc. referred to as “shared environment” have only a minor impact.

        The nature of “non-shared environment” is the most important question today in the science of human behavior. The fact that traditional “nurture” factors are of minor importance is one of the most remarkable scientific discoveries in recent times.

    1. Clive

      I thought trolls only lived at the bottom of my garden. Right under where I store the horse manure for the roses. And aren’t you up a bit late on a school night ?

  6. James Levy

    If I am a big-shot planner on the Chinese General Staff my overwhelming concern is the complete inexperience of my officers and NCOs. My army hasn’t fought a battle since 1979 and my pilots lack experience and realistic training. America’s obsession with military intervention has given her a huge advantage over any other power in terms of combat experience. America also has a realistic understanding of logistics needs and supply and maintenance systems that no one else remotely approaches. Given this reality I would not dream of taking the offensive in any altercation with the Americans and would stick to defending the nation from no more than 50 miles out at sea. If the Americans are dumb enough to try force projection onto the Chinese mainland, then I’d be optimistic about my chances to dealing them a serious blow. But fighting out around Taiwan or Japan is simply out of the question for the foreseeable future.

    1. damian

      A very old book says otherwise. The Hidden History of the Korean War by I.F. Stone (formerly NYT) – originally published in 1952. very good read!

      MacArthur’s false flag attack by his protégé – Sigmund Rhee against the north eventually resulted in North Koreans attacking the South. Mac Arthur replied with an invasion and had the overwhelming asset position on the ground and in the air.

      Millions of civilian Koreans were murdered by MacArthur with jellied gasoline bombs and other incendiaries.

      He marches all the way to the Manchurian Border and saw 500,000 Chinese massed and they pushed him all the way back to the 38th parallel where the USA is………today.

      The Chinese had practically no serious assets and certainly no logistic experience and the US, in particular MacArthur, had previous 5 years experience in WWII Europe and Pacific theaters with every asset and system imaginable.

      What happened? if the US position was so formidable?

      or how about: The US was beat by a more ragtag group – Hi Chi Minh led in Vietnam – US exited off the roof of the US Embassy.

      This US game is about money spent – but money doesn’t deliver victory – the will of the people do – see East Ukraine.

      China and Russia have raw science, 10’s of millions of people that are dedicated and cheap on the front line and cheap military equipment.

      The US will lose !

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        How long will it take before we see everyone in the world speak Putonghua Chinese?

        1. James Levy

          Thank you–he has. The Chinese Army in 1950 had a huge amount of experience from the wars with Japan and the Nationalists–Chinese officers and men were combat ready–while the US threw in garrison troops from Japan and got their heads handed to them. All I said was that if the Chinese were tough, experienced, and determined in 1950 they lack experience now. I think all military men wherever you find them think that experience and training are more important than weapons, and the Americans have a huge edge right now in experience and training. Chinese pilots who have never flown a combat sortie in their lives are going to suffer horrendous initial loses gaining the experience they need. As I said, I would never fight the Americans where they can use those advantages, but suck them in close and try to prevail in a meat grinder where guts and numbers can partially make up for material and experience.

          1. vidimi

            i don’ think china would contest the us in the air, even in their own backyard. rather, their focus has been on surface to air capabilities since they are no doubt aware of their own shortcomings in experience.

            mind you, china has been very active in anti-piracy operations off the horn of africa, so their navy has been steadily gaining experience.

            1. Helix

              I think a lot of this misses the point. China has not recently, nor in the past, shown much inclination to establish global military reach. Militarily, China’s military focus has always been regional.

              It is quite clear to me that China has the upper hand in this competition. While the US bankrupts itself by becoming involved in — or even starting — every brushfire on the planet, China remains tightly focused on economic development and maneuvers the US into a dependent position by becoming its supplier of critical military equipment, particularly electronics. At the same time, China’s domestic focus remains on economic advancement and technical education, where it now out-produces the US in scientific and technical journals by a wide margin. Yes, I know China’s domestic economy has its own bizarro edge to it, but China at least understands what it’s true priorities are.

              China does not have to challenge the US militarily and she knows it. She has only to wait for the US to destroy itself through its indulgence in adolescent-level national priorities; its expensive, ill-advised foreign adventures; and its suicidal trade policies.

              She may not have long to wait.

      2. guest

        The Chinese had practically no serious assets and certainly no logistic experience

        When it entered the Korean fray, China had accumulated 14 years of experience successfully waging war against a much better equipped, more mobile, industrialized, mechanized, tactically proficient enemy — Japan. Yes, logistics were essential — both Japanese and Chinese armies fielded millions of troops and had to feed them, supply them and support them in what was a thoroughly underdeveloped country. Definitely a different kind of logistics than the USA organized during WWII, but still — Chinese generals knew how to move and supply those 500000 troops across rough country.

        The US was beat by a more ragtag group

        At least the North Vietnamese army was anything but ragtag by the time the USA were seriously involved — it included armoured units, ferociously effective anti-aircraft units, and later even an air-force. Oh, and 10 years experience successfully fighting much better equipped, mobile, industrialized, mechanized, tactically proficient enemies — Japan and France — all while moving and supplying Viet Minh troops across difficult terrain.

        Now, the one thing that the current Chinese do not have is recent fighting experience — although the other advantages you mention are quite real and significant.

    2. Lexington

      If I am a big-shot planner on the Chinese General Staff my overwhelming concern is the complete inexperience of my officers and NCOs. My army hasn’t fought a battle since 1979 and my pilots lack experience and realistic training. America’s obsession with military intervention has given her a huge advantage over any other power in terms of combat experience.

      Counterinsurgency operations if Afghanistan and Iraq are of limited value in preparing for a conventional war – and that’s before we even get to the fact the US was defeated in both. You’d have to go back to World War II to find an instance in with the US fought a roughly comparable opponent, and even then they usually had a substantial material advantage.

      I also think you need to take into account that China has a military tradition that extends back 2500 years. Independent observers generally have a high regard for the training and professionalism of the Chinese military.

    3. bob

      The US state department cables, released after Tienanmen Square are a great read.

      I’m not sure this is the best source for them, but all I could find quickly-

      They had no idea who was in charge of anything. It seemed that internally, the rank of the name outweighed the rank of the officer. Very hard to determine any real chain of command. Probably harder for the officers.

      My short remembered impression was that they had a crazed, very well connected general who went nuts. They sent the rest of the army in to try and stop him.

      1. bob

        I just read through the summary that GW put together. Read the actual cables, much more interesting, and accurate. The focus of the summary is split into categories. When there is an army in your capital, and you’re not really sure who’s in charge anymore, the only thing that really matters is who is shooting, and why.

        The cables reflect that. I seriously question the motives of anyone who could downplay that to a few lines in a few hundred.

        “After the square had been cleared Chinese Army troops continued to occupy the city5, with continuing reports of sporadic gunfire and interfactional fighting among PLA units. The possibility that units of the PLA would turn on each other was raised in the June 6th edition of the Secretary of State’s Morning Summary as well as embassy cables from June 5-6. An embassy cable from June 5 (Document 18) reports that armored units from the PLA’s 27th Army “seem poised for attack by other PLA units,” and notes that a “western military attaché” largely blames the 27th for the June 3 massacre, and says that the 27th “is accused of killing even the soldiers of other units when they got in the way.””

      2. different clue

        I remember reading that Deng Xiao-Ping ordered the big massacre in order to get proxy vengeance on the Tien An Men students for what the Red Guard students had done to him and his son (thrown out a window, left crippled) several decades before.

  7. taodaoman

    There is a huge difference between defense and offense.
    China does not and will not have over 700 offensive military bases all over the world.

  8. bobs

    As long as China’s economic growth keeps exceeding the US’s by a factor of 3 or 4, the question of superiority will soon be moot.

    But the number that matters the most is 50K. That’s about the upper bound on the number of casualties the US would be willing to take in a nondefensive conflict. Now imagine a clash over Taiwan in which China is willing to take a million casualties. The US would lose. China knows that and so does the Pentagon. That means that, unlike the US, China has little reason to fear escalation. This is why the Asia pivot was DOA. We’re in Hawk-Dove territory: Maynard Smith worked it all out a long time ago…

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We have the money, the global reserve currency and the Chinese are good at being a big part of our global supply chain.

      No inflation, the claim goes (boldly), as we keep printing money…until we realize that domestic inflation is not the immediate issue, just like weather on Mars is not an issue (perhaps never, not just immediately) here either.

  9. PlutoniumKun

    I’m a little reluctant to read too much into military analyses which rely too much on economic spending as there are innumerable variables at work. As an obvious example, the Afghans have many times made life hell for vastly richer militaries, and military history is full of examples of countries who used smart strategies to undermine bigger, more advanced nations.

    There are two aspects to the ‘catch-up’ argument in military spending. Japan in the 19th Century managed a staggeringly quick catch up on the older powers by strategic purchasing of weaponry and knowhow. They were also lucky, in that they invested in a relatively peaceful time in history where they could study and grow, while the older Empires stagnated. So the Russians got one hell of a shock in 1908. The Chinese have proven very adept so far at taking short cuts by simply copying technology from other countries, so making very rapid leaps. Their weapons may not be as good as US/Russian/European ones, but they are good enough.

    The other side is that militaries are not just collections of weapons, they also represent an accumulation of know-how. China may, for example, one day be able to build a dozen super carriers to match the US. But what they will find very hard to do is replicate the 70 years or so of accumulated experience with designing and using carriers – as the British found out to their cost when they ran theirs down, its very difficult to pick up again once you’ve lost that deep historic memory.

    An additional issue though is that in truth, I don’t believe the Chinese see the American has their primary adversary. As a land power, they always see their neighbours as the immediate threat, even if they are friendly at the moment. And historically, japan is the oldest and most current rival, closely followed by South Korea.

    They know, of course, that they cannot beat the US in a straight war, but they also know that they probably don’t need to. They just need to make any US intervention too costly. Its already probably that strategically the US has accepted that it cannot intervene if China were to snatch Taiwan. The risk of losing a carrier or two and getting humiliated is just too great. It won’t be long before the same calculation will apply to parts of SE Asia, and maybe even S. Korea and Japan in the longer term. And as far as the Chinese are concerned, that is what the military is for.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Historically, China’s outside enemies came from the north (Huns, Mongols) , north east (Manchus, Jurchens) and north west (Sogdians, Tibetans, Turks).

      Only in the last 100 years or so has Japan been adversary number 1.

      Their inside ‘enemies’ (to the ruling lords, that is) came from over-taxed peasants (never mind taxation validated or gave value to ‘flying money’ – again, another Chinese invention, as far as the Song dynasty about 1000 years ago, the world should be grateful for).

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Its true that in most geographically large and varied countries the real target of the military is internal dissent. We tend to focus on warships and combat aircraft, but probably more real time and effort goes into planning domestic actions, even if no military command would actually admit to that. I’m quite sure this applies to China (as the Tibetans and Uigars have found out to their cost).

        However, one somewhat overlooked factor with China is that their history of ground wars isn’t covered in glory. The Vietnamese fought them to a bloody stalemate in 1979 and this seems to have made China hesitant about provoking any border conflict – this is, I suspect one reason why they have been so accommodating to the North Koreans and have very consciously demilitarised the border with Russia. They know their history too – they’ll be well aware of how the Soviets destroyed a Japanese army in the Nomonhan (Khalkhin Gol) incident in 1939 – the latter persuading the Japanese to focus on a Pacific Naval war rather than (as they previously intended) push from Manchuria into Siberia. The Russians have always been masters of large scale ground manoeuvres and I doubt the Chinese would ever want to put this to the test. Like the Japanese in 1939, they see control of the seas as a more achievable aim, not least because failure has less implications on the home front.

  10. Gaylord

    This kind of analysis of defense strategy only feeds the insanity that accelerates our demise. All of the world’s governments, instead of “defending” against one other, had better start preparing for the coming onslaught of a force infinitely more powerful than our stupid militaries, that will dwarf our puny human conflicts: the wrath of Nature, which will overwhelm us across the globe with fires, floods, drought, extreme storms, rising seas, depleted soil, shortages of food and water, and pandemic disease. All available resources must be harnessed in a cooperative effort to reverse the cumulative destructive effects of civilization that are causing the ecocide of our one and only habitat: planet earth. The hour is late. Wake up, humans!

    1. susan the other

      Absolutely. And no other industry pollutes like the military. It (all militaries) is the A number-one polluter on the planet. The tragedy is we all know it but can’t stop it. I’ve been saying forever that the best thing for us to do is turn swords into ploughshares. Retool the military to clean up their own enormous messes first and then go on to clean up all the toxic dumps and devastated ecosystems in an ongoing project for as long as it takes.

      1. JEHR

        I cried as I listened to this video, then I sent it to my MP and asked him to share it with Stephen Harper–the anti-environmentalist par excellence!

    2. JTMcPhee

      The War Department Department of Defense intelligentsia and planners are all over the question of how to maintain the military monstrosity as the Great Ape in the coming destruction and desolation. For which they both set the scientific arguments to support the case that it’s inevitably coming, and the detailed planning for how the nominally US military “lead and manage” the world’s response to all that dislocation, disruption and horror. The cool thing about DoD is that they take all our money to build this enormous monstrosity that fails in its primary nominal mission, “defending the country,” while succeeding like a termite colony in eating its way through the built environment. And they document and often share those documents with the rest of us, particularly the corporate interests that would gain from and be allies in what’s likely coming. Here’s the title and link, for a fun read: “Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security,” Because “security” sounds so very “secure,” doesn’t it?

      I often point to this product of the “Defense Science Board,” which has been updated I understand, as the blueprint that the Pentagram expects to follow in turning environmental collapse into just another “security threat” to be countered through actions of the Grand Global Interoperable Network-Centric Battlespace, which is what these folks map all the rest of us into as assets and targets. There’s a plethora of titles inthis area, growing exponentially, like, and, and

      Lots of opportunities, in DoD’s plans for running things, for incorporating corporate expansions in stuff like genetically modified seed sales, construction equipment and engineering services, IT and all the opportunities that injects, etc., into new territories as the US Military expands its reach under the rubric of “humanitarian aid” and ” threat response” into areas devastated by environmental damage like coastal flooding and desertification and potable water scarcity. All under “our” leadership, of course, created and confirmed by the kind of stuff that goes on right now, “arming and training national police and local armed forces,” like the Ukrainian army that is on the road to being “interoperable” with our Command and Control structures. And of course arming ever more “moderate terrorists,” that’s another winner, no?

  11. susan the other

    I’m also thinkin’ Chinese secret technology. We can calculate the expense of known military technology and practice, but why? To assess who has the advantage? China is busy creating their own technologies for all sorts of things; one report last nite on NHK did an interview with a Chinese tech who was working on a new design for clean busses who said that China did not want to use western technology because the learning curve was steep and they wouldn’t be able to compete very well. China is going all out for their own way of doing things. So that’s what the geniuses at the Pentagon should be worried about. (Since they know as well as China that money doesn’t matter.) Apparently our spy satellites aren’t giving us enough info.

    Anybody remember Sir Richard Branson’s excellent adventure in his flying balloon a few years back. It was an “around the world” big production. The balloon flew at an unheard-of altitude, had all the latest technology, etc. When Richard got to western China, the story goes, he asked for permission to fly over. But it wasn’t stated if he got it. Anyway, he did fly over western China, over their most secret military facility, much like (we think of) our Area 51. And as soon as he completed this leg of his flight, he downed his rig and called for rescue. No doubt he had accomplished his little photo shoot. Now that seemed like an instance of going to extremes to find something out. No?

  12. Code Name D

    I am automatically skeptical of stories like these because it fits so closely with the narrative when Conservatives are trying to find an enemy that they need to justify military expenditures.

    It comes down to the question of what is meant by “military threat.” Is it that China COULD challenge the US militarily… if they wanted too… implying that they are not currently hostile. Or that they are hostile and will attack the moment they feel they have a tactical advantage to exploit?

    Or more than likely what is meant is that China is a threat because it’s not one of our brain-puppets and has the capacity to form and project its own agenda.

  13. Steven

    It comes down to the question of what is meant by “military threat.”

    See your own comment above – March 30, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    I have often said that China could blockade the US by shutting down its own ports.

      1. Steven

        “I have often said that China could blockade the US by shutting down its own ports.”

        Oh, you weren’t serious? Well then let me claim that one for my own.

  14. different clue

    I should think that Chinese military development is not to rule the world as the world’s indispensable nation. China wants to prevent any and all resistance from its downstream and downwind neighbors as China pollutes and degrades more and more and more.

    China wants to make sure that there is not a damn thing Asia can do about it when China gets done turning all of Asia’s great rivers into crusty ribbons of shit.

      1. different clue

        This article simply confirms and affirms what the book I mentioned above refers to. The ChinaGov plans to poly-dam and strangle every river arising throughout all parts of Tibet, including parts of “Szechuan” and “Chinghai” so-called “provinces”. The ChinaGov will destroy the annual silt-deposition flood-cycles along the downstream reaches of all these rivers, starving and strangling agriculture and exterminating it in due course. The ChinaGov plans to hold back the water in dams to release through turbines at China’s own needs and convenience, destroying all the fish-spawning runs which fed millions of downstream people for time immemorial. The ChinaGov is even planning to hijack some of the water to re-divert it to the growing manmade agri-deserts in North China.

        So since hydro-electricity expansion is part of the “greening of power” referred to in this article, it is part of the process whereby China will turn all the great rivers of Asia into crusty ribbons of shit. That book Meltdown In Tibet is worth a read.

      2. different clue

        And as to “take the money and run” . . . that is exactly what the Chinese Red Overlord elites are doing now. Buying property all over America and Canada and maybe elsewhere and sneaking lots of money out so that when China itself becomes uninhabitable from their accustomed-comfort standpoint, they have their escape all prepared.

        Hopefully not one of them will be able to excape. Hopefully they will all be stopped, killed and eaten by their parched, mutated and carcinogenized masses of victims who will indeed have to stay behind in China in any case.

  15. guest

    But even allowing for say, a 10%-20% productivity advantage in the US due, for example, to less corruption and better procurement practices


  16. ltr

    March 31, 2015

    AIIB: China outsmarts US diplomacy on Asia bank
    Canberra’s U-turn on the Asia bank suggests Australian politicians finally accept that a new era has dawned in our region’s politics.
    By Hugh White

    China’s new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a very big deal for Asia’s economic future, but the way its establishment has played out makes it an even bigger deal for Asia’s changing political and strategic order. And Canberra’s announcement last weekend that Australia will join the AIIB despite the objections of the United States may come to be seen as marking a historic shift in Australian foreign policy.

    For the first time, Australia has unambiguously defied Washington by acknowledging China’s claims to a major regional leadership role. The government might not admit it, but they quietly crossed a Rubicon on Sunday.

    It is quite clear that Obama argued against the AIIB precisely because it would strengthen China’s leadership in Asia, and hence erode the US’s. He expected loyal allies like Tony Abbott to fall in line….

  17. Al Tinfoil

    The USA military-industrial complex has done its part to help China’s military development by making the USA’s best and latest military technology available for downloading off the internet.

    Including the plans for the F-35. Very helpful.

    Then again, maybe not.

    1. Jack

      The great irony with them copying the F-35 is that their knockoff is virtually guaranteed to be a much better plane. The Shenyang J-31 has a clearly defined role, no VTOL gimmick to make it overweight and take up all the internal ammunition storage space and has two engines, Russian style, for good measure. On top of that it isn’t being built by a bloated and corrupt industrial complex that doesn’t much care if the end product is any good. I’m guessing the Chinese team have a much smaller budget and bosses who have an expectation that they will produce results, and in a timely manner.

  18. Rosario

    The first brother can see for miles.
    The second brother can hear from miles away.
    The third brother is incredibly strong.
    The fourth brother can stretch and is invincible.
    and so on and so forth…

  19. Roland

    China’s nuclear arsenal is too small, too old, and too vulnerable. Their retaliatory power lacks credibility except against other minor nuclear powers such as India. Unless China seriously augments its nuclear arsenal, China will not be able to get a world power-political benefit proportional to their growing overall defense expenditure.

    China’s large conventional army does not meaningfully offset US power. China has yet to demonstrate any sort of military power-projection capability.

    The big unknowns are the capability of China’s air and orbital defenses.

  20. lakewoebegoner

    ” In these terms, China’s ability to wield international political power would seem to be very close to that of the US.”

    hogwash unless the author is talking about economic political power.

    Just compare the US Navy (its 12+ carrier) and the Chinese Navy (its conspicuous lack of modern carriers, think China has one or two tiny ones)

    The US military is geared towards one thing…..being a bull in the china shop of the third world—at the US win record v. the third world is pretty lame (Korea/Communist Chinese–draw, Vietnam–lose, Panama–win, Iraq 1–win, Iraq 2–draw, Afghanistan–draw).

    And given the US and British imperial record at ‘projecting power’ I doubt that the Chinese are in a big mood to intervene 6,000 miles away from their borders. Now 120 miles, that’s a different story. Just as it was with the US and Cuba in 1961/62.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Those tens-of-billions carriers and their hundreds-of-billions task forces might be a Great White Fleet to threaten the “wogs,” but even the Navy knows the scope of “the problem,” and since it’s all free tax money, does not give a sh_t about the cost of keeping up really nice quarters and wardrooms and personal servants for those flag officers and jet jockeys.

      “Fortress At Sea: The Carrier Invulnerability Myth,”

      “Iran Encounter Grimly Echoes ’02 War Game,”

      And those sneaky yellow Chinese, and others who dare to oppose the Hegemony, have dared to develop and field a couple of anti-carrier weapons, like the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile,, and supercavitating torpedoes, to the point that one asks, “US Aircraft Carriers: Vulnerable to Attack? The Ticking Time Bomb,”“In the world of big business, and big military, money is power. The more money one controls, the more powerful one is. And, in the U.S. military, the bigger the program and sexier the hardware/technology, the more prestige you’ve got, especially if that hardware can rain a lot of destruction down on the enemy. Perhaps those are just a few of the multitude of reasons the U.S. Navy wants to spend an estimated $13.7 billion per unit for a future Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier a.k.a. “super carrier” called the CVN 21 (formerly CVNX).

      Basically, the stated mission of the Northrop Grumman CVN 21 Program is to “conceptualize, design, build, test and deliver a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier that meets operational requirements of the United States Navy and results in specified reductions in acquisition costs, manning and weight while enhancing operational capabilities.” How, a $13.7 billion super aircraft carrier is going to lead to reductions in acquisition costs is anyone’s guess, but it sounds good. And, good PR is everything these days when it comes to huge-budget military programs.

      However, there are a couple of little “flies in the ointment” in the form of brahMos de04 U.S. Aircraft Carriers Vulnerable to Attack?: The Ticking Time Bomb the latest ship-killing unmanned weapon systems like supercavitating torpedoes and supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles being produced and/or developed by other countries that can probably sink the CVN-21, even if it is protected by its own highly-advanced, highly-lethal systems like fighter aircraft (primarily F/A-18s), ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare i.e. “sub-hunting”) aircraft, the Raytheon Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS), Aegis-radar-equipped and highly-weaponized cruisers and destroyers, submarines, etc. That’s not to mention unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being produced and developed by other countries that can also potentially wreak a lot of havoc and destruction on surface ships. And, at the end of the day, that’s what the CVN-21 will be, a large, hulking, incredibly expensive (albeit very sexy) surface ship.

      The thing about surface ships is, they’re vulnerable to anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, AND UAS/UAVs, the whole trifecta, and these unmanned yet highly lethal weapons are increasing in sophistication all the time. Take the BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile (air-breathing), for instance. An Indian-Russian joint venture, the BrahMos can be launched from aircraft, ships, and subs, and flies at approx. three (3) times the speed (“high supersonic velocity”) of standard subsonic cruise missiles like the Raytheon BGM-109 Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile (TLAM) (submarine or ship-launched) and Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon/SLAM (Stand-off Land Attack Missile) anti-ship cruise missile. It’s fire-and-forget, has a low radar signature, and can be programmed for a variety of attack trajectories. The Brahmos Aerospace website has an “operational scenario” illustration that shows the BrahMos Universal Supersonic Cruise Missile’s versatility with regard to launching platforms.

      And, then there’s the Russian-made 3M-54E / SSN-27 Sizzler supersonic cruise missile being employed/deployed by China and (reportedly) Iran’s Kilo subs (unconfirmed/unverified), which is currently giving our Naval commanders a real headache in trying to figure out a way to defend our carriers against it. Major problem….[and wait! There’s more!]” … and little fleas to bite ’em…

      “Value Despite Vulnerability: Strategic Impact of China’s Carrier,”

      “U.S. to Keep 11 Aircraft Carriers Despite Cost, Vulnerability Concerns,” (from the idiotic thinking reported here: “Last month, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told a crowd in Virginia that “we have the most advanced platforms in the world, but quantity has a quality of its own.” Mabus and other Navy leaders are currently grappling with severe budget constraints, and as he said those words the Navy was reportedly considering decommissioning one of its 10 active Nimitz-class aircraft carriers as a cost-saving measure. The $13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford, the first of the next-generation Ford-class carriers, was christened in November and is currently expected to join the fleet as the 11th carrier in 2016.*

      Although the White House rejected this proposal, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, cuts to the number of U.S. aircraft carriers remain a tempting option for cost-conscious analysts and policymakers. During a recent defense budget exercise in Washington, four teams from prominent defense think tanks all recommended cuts to the carrier force as a way to save money.

      There is also a growing sense that new military technologies in the hands of U.S. rivals will make aircraft carriers more vulnerable and less usable near hostile shores. U.S. forces are facing the “proliferation of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles” as part of a broader spread of precision-guided weaponry to new actors, says Bill French of the National Security Network. “It’s questionable that the United States has sufficient countermeasures.”

      But many seapower advocates are unconvinced, and last month a bipartisan group of 11 members of Congress called on the Pentagon to sustain 11 carriers. “We believe now is the time to reinvest in our fleet, not look for ways to reduce its size and accept greater risk,” they wrote.)

      Of course, the Yell Loudly And Swing A Big D_ck crowd are trying to put a good face on the reality, while whistling past the graveyard: “Aircraft Carrier (IN)vulnerability: What it takes to successfully attack an American Aircraft carrier,” A really convincing PowerPoint… not.

      “The only way to win the game is not to play.”

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