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Chinese and US Military Spending: Who’s the Real Threat?

Mar 22, 2019
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

Whenever the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and National People’s Congress (NPC) hold their annual sessions in March, the subject of Chinese military spending features prominently in US media as evidence of the growing “China threat.” This year is no exception. As innuendos, hyperbole, and far-fetched assertions are tossed about freely, one can hardly miss the familiar tone, which prompts us to revisit an old topic — Chinese and US military spending.

According to official sources, China’s military spending in 2019 is 1.19 trillion RMB yuan, or approximately 177.61 billion US dollars. In the corresponding period, US military spending is 716.0 billion dollars, more than four times that of China. With 328 million and nearly 1.4 billion people respectively, US military spending per capita is 2200 dollars as compared with China’s 126 dollars, giving it a 17:1 advantage. In terms of percentage of GDP, the US figure is above 3% compared with China’s 1.3%.

Though ranking second in military spending, China is not even close to being the world’s second largest military power, for the following reasons: First, China’s military ambition was for decades put on the back-burner under the country’s development strategy which gave top priority to economic growth. The recent rise in military spending amounts to repaying old debts, an effort to make up for longstanding neglect. Second, thanks to Western countries’ prolonged arms embargo, China has to follow a costlier approach to weapon development through self-reliance instead of buying what it needs on the international market, a situation that has remained more or less unchanged to date. Third, with a large landmass, long borders, and a fairly complicated geopolitical neighborhood, China needs more troops just for defense. Despite several rounds of personnel cuts, China’s military remains the world’s largest, with a considerable amount of resources going to the day-to-day maintenance of personnel while leaving little to upgrade weapons and equipment.

In comparison, the US has been for more than a century the world’s leading military power. It has a huge stock of military supplies and an unlimited military potential. On the sea, it has 11 nuclear-powered carrier battle groups roaming about the world’s oceans. Under the sea, it has some 80 advanced nuclear-powered submarines. Even if the US Navy chooses to stay put without expanding, experts believe it would still take China’s navy several decades to reach America’s current strength. In the air, the US boasts F2 and F35 stealth fighters, along with B2 strategic bombers. The latest figures show that the US has 6400 nuclear warheads compared with China’s 300 — fewer than that of the UK or France, and trailing among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. What is more, US military power is enhanced significantly by its numerous allies. America’s hundreds of overseas bases and installations give US combat readiness another big boost. China, a country that pursues an independent and non-aligned policy, has to date only one military supply base in Djibouti, which is hardly a full-fledged military base.

The US, by banking on increased military spending and pursuing an aggressive national strategy, has become a source of serious concern for world peace.

The end of the Cold War once instilled people with ardent hopes for a better world. One such hope was that the mighty could cut down their military spending and use the savings to address global woes such as poverty, disease, hunger, and environmental degradation. The world looked to the US with the greatest expectations, as it was the giant of the giants.

The facts, however, have left the world deeply disappointed. Instead of putting a lid on military spending, the US has kept on spending more and more until its spending surpassed the nine countries behind it put together. Recently, President Trump submitted a defense budget of 750 billion dollars, 34 billion more than that of the previous year. The figure is greater than the GDP of at least 100 countries in the world.

Some suggest that the US is always on the lookout for enemies. Indeed, the US has an acute sense of rivalry, always ready to seek out new foes at different historical moments. US scholar of strategic studies David Rothkopf explained succinctly that politicians love having enemies, as bashing foreign rivals can energize the public and divert their attention from domestic problems. The defense industry loves having enemies because the overseas rivalry can help them make more money. Scholars love enemies because it can help sell their books more quickly.

With an extraordinarily potent military and an acute sense of rivalry, the US has gotten itself involved in the Afghan War, Iraq War, Libyan Civil War and other wars in the last two decades or so. These conflicts have left behind tattered social fabrics in those countries, endless chaos in the region, ISIS and other terror groups wreaking havoc, massive refugee flows, and an unraveled international balance of power.

In the meantime, there has been an upsurge in the export of US weapons. According to the latest statistics by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, US weapons sales in the past five years accounted for 36% of the global total. These sales have caused one arms race after another at the regional and global levels—another major contributing factor for global instability.

With a record like that, the US still has the cheek to call China a threat based on its modest military spending. Undoubtedly this will not make the Chinese public happy. But we could not care less about such US behavior. What can you do if you confront someone who denies obvious facts and turns a deaf ear to reason? One basic fact everyone can see clearly is that the US, not anyone else, poses the primary military threat to the world.

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