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China's Hard Power

China's Military

Recent headlines underline China’s burgeoning military power. Last week, both China and the United States sought to reduce tensions over a sea dispute and increase future talks to limit military confrontation. This month, Beijing announced that the country’s defense budget will rise by 15 percent in 2009. Is China the next military superpower?

Every year, China improves its ability to project military authority over land and into air, space and water. Two decades of double-digit spending boosts transformed the military from a massive but outdated force to a smaller (it remains one of the largest armies in the world), better-trained contingent with modern defense capabilities, including a growing navy, sophisticated air force (with Russian warplanes), ballistic missiles and advanced surveillance capabilities.

Some experts worry that even with US support for Taiwan, China’s military buildup and acquisition of technology shifted the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait in China’s favor.

The Council on Foreign Relations produced a backgrounder on China’s military power in February (the report also appeared in the New York Times). Additionally, the Council published a briefer on the implications of China’s military reach.

Released in January, China’s white paper on national defense emphasizes the country’s “peaceful rise” and the transparency of its military spending. The document and pronouncements of Chinese leaders often try to counter perceptions that China is rapidly gaining aggressive military capabilities.

“China pursues a national defense policy which is purely defensive in nature…

“China will never seek hegemony or engage in military expansion now or in the future, no matter how developed it becomes.”

The US and most analysts argue that Beijing repeatedly understates its military expenditure and intentions. The US Department of Defense prepares an annual report to Congress on China’s military. In the most recent assessment, the Pentagon estimates China’s total military-related spending in 2007 was between $97 billion and $137 billion, much higher than the 45 billion dollar figure reported by Beijing at the time.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January and said the US must contend with “rising powers at strategic crossroads” and commented on China’s military modernization.

“The areas of greatest concern are Chinese investments and growing capabilities in cyber-and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles. Modernization in these areas could threaten America’s primary means of projecting power and helping allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them.”

This, however, does not mean an arms race is underway and China will inevitably flex its muscles. The US still enjoys a window of opportunity to deter and cooperate. Without an aircraft carrier, China cannot comparably project military force outside its region. China is years away from effectively countering US preeminence and even the highest estimates of China’s expenditures pale in comparison to America’s defense spending.

Military Spending

In 2008, the US spent over $600 billion on defense. Travis Sharp, a military policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, writes in Foreign Policy:

“The United States remains far and away the global leader in overall defense spending. Consider that in 2007, the most recent year for which accurate data is available from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States spent more on defense than the next 14 highest spending countries combined; accounted for 43 percent of the world’s total defense spending; and spent five times more on defense than China.”

Will the modernization of Chinese defense forces pose a serious challenge to US security and complicate Sino-American relations? With the continued buildup of China’s military might, US officials fear increasing competition – in this respect, China is a rising rival.

Photo from Jason Lee/Reuters. Graphic from the Economist.



David Kampf

David Kampf is a writer and researcher based in Washington, DC. He is also a columnist for Asia Chronicle. He analyzes international politics, foreign policy and economic development, and his pieces have appeared in various publications, including China Rights Forum, African Security Review and World Politics Review. Recently, he directed communications for the U.S. Agency for International Development and President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Rwanda. Prior to living in East Africa, he worked in China and studied in Brazil, India and South Africa.

Area of Focus
International Politics; Foreign Affairs; Economic Development