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The Mathematics of Military Balance

Apr 19 , 2011

The People’s Republic of China recently released its 2011 White Paper on National Defense. As a result, there were a lot of discussions on the impact of the rise of China’s military power and the perception of its threat to United States interest. It is interesting to observe that there is a lack of comparisons of the military capacity between these two countries. It will be helpful to take a look at China and the United States military budgets and see how much each side has devoted to defend its land, protect its people, and ensure no disruption to its economy.

How large are these two nation’s military budgets? China’s military budget is about US$ 91.5 billion and the United States budget is about US$663.8 billion. The United States military is more than seven times larger than China. In fact the United States military budget is larger than the combined military budgets of China, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Russia, India, and Brazil.

China and the United States have roughly about the same size of land. China has 9,596,960 square kilometers of land, and the United States has 9,629,091 square kilometers of land. However, China has fourteen neighboring countries – four of them have nuclear weapons, and a few of them engaged in war with China in the past. The United States has two neighboring countries: Canada and Mexico. None possesses nuclear weapons and both are at peace with the United States But China’s military is only spending US$9,534 per square kilometer to protect its land, and the United States is spending US$68,936 per square kilometer to protect its land, while it has two peaceful neighbors and two great oceans serving as buffer zones.

Besides protecting the land, the military’s most important function is to protect its people. China has roughly 1,336,718,000 people, which means China is spending US$70 per each of its citizens, whereas the United States is spending US$2,119 per each of its citizens, 30 times that of China.  
Much of the challenges facing the United States China military to military relationship are not military issues but rather economic and political interests. It is true that one of the essential functions of a military is to protect the economy of its country. The United States has the largest economy in the world at US$14.6 trillion annually, whereas China is only a fraction of that amount at only US$5.75 trillion. With an economy almost three times as large as China’s, the United States is spending 4.7% of its GDP on its military budget while China is only spending 1.4% of its GDP.

In terms of the number of active troops of both countries, China has 2,285,000 active troops and the United States is not far behind with 1,580,255.  Many experts have always claimed that China has the largest army in the world.  That is true, but if we look at the population as a base, in China there is only one solider to protect every 585 citizens, whereas in the United States there is one solider for every 198 citizens.

China spends an average of US$40,043 per each soldier, and the United States spends US$420,058 – ten times the amount. China’s large army also comes at a cost to the Chinese government. If the Chinese military wants to improve the daily meal of each solider, at just US$5 per soldier per day, that will amount to an annual cost of US$4 billion a year, which is about 4.5% of China’s current military budget.

Is China a threat to the United States? According to Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, speaking at the Asia Society in Hong Kong, on February 21, 2011, “we don’t consider China to be a direct threat.”

Is China the enemy of the United States? According to Admiral Robert F. Willard, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, speaking at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, on April 7, 2011, “China is not an enemy of the United States”

It is true that China possesses nuclear weapons. But since 1964, China has adopted a universal no-first-use (NFU) pledge. China applies NFU to Taiwan; and China has pledged not to target its nuclear weapons against the United States or Russia. As far back as 1998, in its White Paper on National Defense, China stated:
“From the first day it possessed nuclear weapons, China has solemnly declared its determination not to be the first to use such weapons at any time and in any circumstances, and later undertook unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones.”
And in 2002, China placed a significant importance on exercising “utmost restraint on the development of nuclear weapons and its nuclear arsenal is kept at the lowest level necessary for self-defense only.”

If there were ever going to be a war between the United States and China, it will be because of United States’ military interference to support a Taiwan independence from China. Each time the United States arms sales to Taiwan raises great concern and contention from China. At times it has hurt the normal high level military to military engagements.

Let’s look at Taiwan’s military budget and measure it with the same matrix. Taiwan’s annual military budget is about US$10.5 billion. It is small compared to Mainland China, but Taiwan only has 35,980 square kilometers of land, 22 million people, an economy of US$736 billion, and 290,000 active troops. In this case, Taiwan is spending US$291,828 per square kilometer to protect its land, far more than China’s US$9,534 per square kilometer, and even far more than the United States’ US$68,936 per square kilometer. Taiwan is spending $458 per citizen to protect its people, about six and half times China’s US$70 per each of citizens. Of its US$736 billion economy, Taiwan is spending 2.5% of its GDP, about double in proportion of China’s 1.4% of GDP. Taiwan is spending an average of US$36,206 on each troop, slightly less than China’s US$40,043 per soldier. But Taiwan has one soldier for every 79 citizens, much higher in ratio than China’s one per every 585 citizens and United States’ one per every 198 citizens.

The question is whether China has the capacity to take over Taiwan by force. If we look at China’s military budget, it is nine times that of Taiwan. China has ten times the number of active troops versus Taiwan, and Taiwan is only 130 kilometers away. The answer is affirmative that China has more than enough power to take over Taiwan by force. Yet China chooses to exercise restraint and not to pursue a military option.

Last year, the Obama administration’s approval of US$6 billion of arms sales to Taiwan is pale compare to the existing China arsenal. Any arms sales will not make a difference in the outcome but it will create more casualties.  China is not keen on using its military might against the people of Taiwan, but rather it extends its policy of engagement to try to resolve this ancient division from three generations ago. If we look at the recent year’s developments between China and Taiwan, we can see that China and Taiwan is in reality departing from the danger of war, and heading towards a chance of peace and prosperity for both.

Former U.S. Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger said it best: “Diplomacy is the art of restraining power.” While current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton declared South China Sea to be United States’ “national interest”, however, we have to keep in mind that peace and prosperity is the true “international interest” for all.

Fred Teng is a senior media executive. He is a regular speaker and writer on U.S. China policy issues, and also actively working  with a number of policy institutions on the bilateral relationship

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