Policy Analysis No. 465

Is Chinese Military Modernization a Threat to the United States?

By Ivan Eland
January 23, 2003

Executive Summary

The ongoing modernization of the Chinese military poses less of a threat to the United States than recent studies by the Pentagon and a congressionally mandated commission have posited. Both studies exaggerate the strength of China’s military by focusing on the modest improvements of specific sectors rather than the still-antiquated overall state of Chinese forces.

The state of the Chinese military and its modernization must also be put in the context of U.S. interests in East Asia and compared with the state and modernization of the U.S. military and other militaries in East Asia, especially the Taiwanese military. Viewed in that context, China’s military modernization does not look especially threatening.

Although not officially calling its policy in East Asia “containment,” the United States has ringed China with formal and informal alliances and a forward military presence. With such an extended defense perimeter, the United States considers as a threat to its interests any natural attempt by China—a rising power with a growing economy—to gain more control of its external environment by increasing defense spending. If U.S. policymakers would take a more restrained view of America’s vital interests in the region, the measured Chinese military buildup would not appear so threatening. Conversely, U.S. policy may appear threatening to China. Even the Pentagon admits that China accelerated hikes in defense spending after the United States attacked Yugoslavia over the Kosovo issue in 1999.

The United States still spends about 10 times what China does on national defense—$400 billion versus roughly $40 billion per year—and is modernizing its forces much faster. In addition, much of the increase in China’s official defense spending is soaked up by expenses not related to acquiring new weapons. Thus, China’s spending on new armaments is equivalent to that of a nation that spends only $10 billion to $20 billion per year on defense. In contrast, the United States spends well over $100 billion per year to acquire new weapons.

Even without U.S. assistance, Taiwan’s modern military could probably dissuade China from attacking. Taiwan does not have to be able to win a conflict; it needs only to make the costs of any attack unacceptable to China. The informal U.S. security guarantee is unneeded.

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Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World (2001).