By John Isaacs
Despite the massive superiority of American military forces over China by most major metrics, there is a rising clamor in Washington, D.C., appealing for a substantial increase in the Biden military budget to confront a resurgent China.
However, the United States has a substantial lead in key capacities, such as total annual military spending, nuclear weapons, combat aircraft and aircraft carriers (see chart below). Unfortunately, these facts haven’t seemed to deter anti-China hardliners within the military, Congress, think tanks and even the Biden administration from looking to increase the military budget in the name of confronting China.
If this seems familiar to some, it should.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was used as a major driving force for a massive U.S. buildup of nuclear weapons and military spending. This produced incredibly dangerous and often poorly controlled and maintained arsenals, and led to several tense moments that almost saw the world destroyed by nuclear war.
Now, it seems that China has become the new Soviet Union strawman. But there’s one big difference: while the Soviet military and nuclear arsenal were a fair match for the United States’, China’s simply aren’t. By many measures, it is not even close.
|Total Defense Spending in 2020||$738.0 billion||$193.3 billion|
|Share of global military spending in 2019||38%||14%|
|Estimated nuclear weapons inventory in 2020||5,800||320|
|Estimated nuclear weapons deployed on ICBMs or on bomber bases in 2020||1,750||0|
|Total Ships and submarines||293||350|
|Ballistic missile submarines||14 Ohio Class subs||4 Ballistic Missile submarines|
|Ship deployment||Warships regularly operate in Chinese littoral water||Warships do not operate in U.S. waters|
|Nuclear powered aircraft carriers||11, with modern aircraft carriers||2 lower capability smaller carriers|
|U.S. Navy has at least a 2-1 advantage in tonnage over China|
|U.S. Navy has a 10-1 lead in carrier-based airpower over China|
|Active military personnel||1,388,000||2,035,000|
|Last major combat experience||Ongoing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria||1979 in Vietnam|
|Nuclear Doctrine||Rejects No First Use policy||No First Use Policy|
|Share of global weapons exports 2015-2019||36%||5.5%|
|Alliances||NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Japan||North Korea, Pakistan, and a few southeast Asian nations|
Recent comments from those looking to boost military spending are painting China as a grave military threat. During his confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III made it crystal clear when he said, “China … presents the most significant threat going forward because China is ascending.” Sec. Austin added that Beijing is the top “pacing threat” for the military.
When asked by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) if it were true that were China to triple or quadruple their nuclear stockpile over the next decade, Beijing ”could possibly have nuclear overmatch against the United States before the end of this decade,” Adm. Phil Davidson, the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander agreed and, not one to shy from hyperbole, also labeled China as “the greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st century.”
Davidson’s announced successor, Adm. John Aquilino, later disavowed that statement, since even with a four-fold increase in its nuclear arsenal, China would only have 1,280 warheads compared to the 5,800 the United States maintains.
In response to the increasing concern over China, President Joe Biden has announced a new task force to devise U.S.-China policy, and the Pentagon has doubled last year’s request for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to $4.68 billion and $27 billion through Fiscal Year 2027.
Now politicians are joining the military spending bandwagon.
Sen. Cotton, besides distorting the nuclear balance, ominously set a goal to actually destroy the Chinese, “We need to beat this evil empire and consign the Chinese Communists…to the ash heap of history,” which is not the sort of language the United States typically likes to use regarding its nuclear peers.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has prodded Biden to spend more to counter China, warning him not to cut or freeze the military budget. The ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) tweeted, “Right now, the greatest threat to America is China – no doubt about it.”
The anti-China lobby has also only been too eager to join in. Elbridge Colby and Walter Slocombe, both former high-ranking Pentagon officials, called for “more realistic exercises to prepare to fight America’s first superpower rival since the Soviet Union.”
To be clear, it is undeniable that China has been significantly modernizing and expanding its military forces – so has the United States. It is also equally clear that the United States and China have major differences: authoritarian government versus a democratic system, economic and trade issues, suppressing Uyghur Muslims, Taiwanese independence, and the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy.
But the two powers’ primary competition is not in the realm of the military and will not be resolved by spending more on the Pentagon. Indeed, China remains the United States’ largest trading partner, and any military confrontation by either side would likely cripple both economies.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman suggests a formula for confronting China that includes increased education to where technology is taking us; improving U.S. ports, roads and telecommunications; attracting high-IQ immigrants; incentivizing risk-taking while curbing recklessness; and steadily increasing government-funded research so U.S. entrepreneurs can turn the most promising new ideas into start-ups.
Proponents of increased military spending are also twisting statistics to bolster their case. When Adm. Davidson talked up the 6.8 percent increase in Chinese military spending, he neglected to mention that this growth brings China to a military budget of $193 billion, compared to the U.S. defense budget of $738 billion.
When the Pentagon’s 2020 “China Military Power Report” claims that the Chinese Navy is the largest in the world, with 350 ships and submarines, compared to the U.S. Navy battle force of 293 ships, it should add that the U.S. Navy has at least a 2-1 advantage in tonnage over China and a 10-1 lead in carrier-based aircraft.
And when Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby complains, “Left unchecked, China’s nuclear arsenal could grow commensurately with its regional ambitions,” he fails to mention that the United States has almost a 20:1 advantage in nuclear weapons.
In November, the House Armed Services Chairman, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA-09) correctly warned about the direction of the debate in this country: “I think building our defense policy around the idea that we have to be able to beat China in an all-out war is wrong…If we get into an all-out war with China, we’re all screwed anyway.”
Building up for a war with China might be good for the military industrial complex, but it is bad policy that will divert funds from more pressing current and long-term threats facing our nation, like global health, economic relief, cybersecurity, and infrastructure.
Not to mention that in an all-out war with the Chinese would cripple the world economy and likely both nations.