Reality Check on Chinese Military Build-Up

Yes, China is increasing its military spending.  And as of this year, it now has one aircraft carrier.  It is modernizing its Navy and testing drones capable of carrying out air/sea combat which China believes would be the core of any future war with a foreign nation.

China is aggressively seeking out and securing mineral and energy resources far from its shores.  In Africa, it is building infrastructure and development projects in return for commercial rights to oil and mineral extraction.  Whether China is a positive force in African economic development or exploits the continent, as Europeans did during the era of colonial rule, is still an open question.

Ironically, the claims China is today making in the South China Sea were first drawn under the US-allied Kuomintang in the early 1940s. China has already signed agreements with a couple of the other nations claiming ownership of islands in the SCS to resolve their territorial conflicts peacefully though negotiation.  China, which during the 19th century was called the ‘sick man of Asia’ has not suddenly become ‘the stomping giant of Asia’.  China, in fact, has not one military base off-shore, in stark contrast with our own hundreds all over the world..

Nevertheless, many US politicians perennially raise fears of China within the US public, as if China were stationing war ships off the coast of Hawaii.  Yet, those same politicians insist that the US military has every right to hold war games with other nations in China’s backyard.

This type of slow drumming rancor and needless suspicion over a period of years breaks down communications and good will when a real crisis occurs.  It is the first step in demonizing an enemy – except China is not in any way an enemy of the US, but is a strong competitor.

There is no doubt that the US and China are and will be in ever sharper competition for mineral and energy resources.  Add Russia and India to the equation and pipeline projects being built through multiple countries and anyone familiar with the 20th century shudders at the potential for conflict.

But we in America have to have a bit of perspective.  Overestimating the strength of competitors will mislead a country as assuredly as underestimating them.  The charts below show the actual imbalance between US and Chinese military spending in absolute and as percentage of GDP.  Next time you hear from a US politician that ‘China is engaged in a long-term military build-up’ (true) and that the US is ill-prepared you might find it amusing instead of frightening.

SIPRI Yearbook 2011

The world’s top 5 largest military budgets in graph.
(also permanent members of the )
Figures sourced from .

The following is a table of the top 15 countries with the highest military expenditure for 2010 published in the (SIPRI) Yearbook 2011 using current market exchange rates in current (2010) US dollars.

Rank Country 2010 Spending ($ b.) Share of 2010 GDP (%) World Share (%)
World Total 1 630 2.6 100
1 698 4.8 43
2 119 2.1 7.3
3 59.6 2.7 3.7
4 59.3 2.3 3.6
5 58.7 4.0 3.5
6 54.5 1.0 3.3
7 45.2 1.3 2.8
7 45.2 10.4 2.8
9 41.3 2.7 2.5
10 37.0 1.8 2.3
11 33.5 1.6 2.1
12 27.6 2.8 1.7
13 24.0 2.0 1.5
14 22.8 1.5 1.4
15 17.5 2.4 1.1
SIPRI estimate
The figures for Saudi Arabia include expenditure for public order and safety and might be slight overestimates.

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