Consistent with China’s threatening behavior in the South China Sea and its broader strategy for significant hegemonic expansion by 2049, the Dragon is increasing its defense spending next year. This increase in military spending should come as no surprise: Like it or not, China and the U.S. are in an arms race. In a recently released Defense Business Board (DBB) assessment of the Pentagon’s Chief Management Office’s performance, the DBB provides an introduction to the analysis with a review of China’s global presence as well as military and economic impact.
Domestic needs will always be secondary concerns for the communist country. In a Reuter’s article published in the National Post, Yew Lun Tian quotes Tan Renwu, dean of Beijing Normal University’s school of public administration, saying, “Even if the government [China] cuts everything else, it won’t cut defense.” On the other hand, defending America’s national security interests at home and around the world is a question of competing priorities for U.S. taxpayer dollars. So, the question is, should the U.S. see China as a threat sufficient enough to increase spending on defense to meet that threat? To answer that question, understanding Beijing’s defense spending trend is a good beginning.
According to the DBB, as a “new peer threat,” China will surpass the U.S. in military spending in 2025, applying Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) as a standard. Using PPP allows for a more accurate comparison of spending between countries with different currencies. The U.S. is projected to spend $806 billion on defense, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will spend $844 billion in PPP. Between 2010 and 2017, China’s spending on military equipment increased by 150%, according to a 2019 Peoples’ Republic of China Ministry of Defense White Paper titled, “China’s National Defense in the New Era.”
China’s spending on the research and development of weapon systems is an indicator of its future defense goals. Though it can be a challenge to isolate the nation’s spending on research and development (R&D) for purely military purposes, we do know that investment in R&D across the board in the Chinese commercial market was $444.8 billion in 2017 – with only the U.S. spending more. It’s a safe bet that military-use R&D is equally high.
China has also increased its worldwide military presence since 2014. Beijing has extended its reach by establishing training programs, overseas ports, participation in Peacekeeping Operations, or military operations other than war in the Philippines, South China Sea atolls, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Middle East, Syria, and numerous locations across Africa. The accompanying graphic from the DBB report with data from the Mercator Institute for China Studies gives a good representation of China’s current global footprint.
However, China’s intention to be a global presence is not the only motivation for spending more each year on defense. In the National Post article, Yew writes that the editor of the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, Global Times, argues that Beijing must expand its stock of nuclear warheads to 1,000, as well as its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles to “at least” 100 DF-41 strategic missiles. Beijing is rapidly achieving parity with the U.S. economically, and most assuredly seeks to equal or pass us in military capability.
America recognizes that China is a major power competitor and has clearly described in the 2017 National Security Strategy the need to maintain a geopolitical position of leadership. What is unclear is whether the magnitude of China’s growing geographic influence and military capability to project Beijing’s will across the globe is enough of a dominant factor in driving American defense spending as a priority in the competition for government funding. For the U.S., domestic spending pressures ebb and flow, but the specter of a dominant People’s Republic of China adversary is daunting. Beijing’s purpose to dominate the geopolitical stage with presence and a growing military capability makes the PRC not just a worthy foe, but a dangerous one. If an arms race with China is inevitable to protect U.S. national and international interests, then despite domestic budget pressures, for America, it must be “game on.”
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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