When Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that China "could threaten America's primary means of projecting power and helping allies in the Pacific," and Admiral Robert Willard, former head of U.S. Pacific Command, notes that it "has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year," there is cause for concern. Could China's military be growing at such a rate that the United States, saddled as it is by the Global War on Terror and economic depression, find itself falling back?
Fortunately, there is not yet cause for concern. Though China has been working hard to generate a flexible, lean, capable military, it still has a very long way to go before it can hope to challenge the United States. It takes more than numbers and a good economy to enable an effective fighting force.
Here's a blow-by-blow analysis of China's military capacities vis-à-vis the United States:
In terms of raw manpower, China's 2.2 million bests the United States' 1.4 (not counting roughly 700,000 defense contractors). However, the quality differs significantly. The United States' forces have been deployed regularly since the Gulf War, while the People's Liberation Army have not seen combat since the 1970s. Similarly China's One-Child Policy might be a potential issue. Single-child families are more likely to dote upon their child; they are averse to heavy physical training and even suffer with basic skills such as laundry. As Drew Thompson notes, "If too much hand-holding is required for these recruits, the PLA could well find itself all suited up for modern warfare — but without the soldiers ready to fight it." The United States will be suffering similar difficulties; a Mission: Readiness report has found that "75% of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 would be unable to enlist in the U.S. armed forces because they are physically unfit, have failed to graduate high school or have criminal records."
2. Air Power:
The United States possesses three times the number of airplanes than China, which is still working on developing its own stealth fighters. Its greatest weakness lies in its engine industry; its new J-20 stealth fighter (designed to be a competitor to the F-22 or F-35) is still relying on Russian engines or weaker domestic models. China is offsetting this weakness by acquiring a small number of Su-35s and an undisclosed number of engines from Russia. The J-20 will likely not be operating until 2017 and it is not known how long before it is produced in sufficient numbers. It must also be noted that it takes more than stealth to make a lethal fighter. It must also possess dependable anti-air and anti-ground munitions, functional radar, electronic integration with other systems, and be mechanically reliable and resilient. For now, China makes up for its lack of a powerful air force by possessing one of the largest and most high-tech surface to air missile systems in the world.
As before, the Chinese navy cannot compare to the U.S. Navy, not just in numbers but also in training. The United States has 10 aircraft carriers in service, while China's sole carrier (purchased from Russia) is currently being used for training and evaluation purposes. It will be many years before it is able to operate as an effective part of a carrier force capable of long-distance deployments and combat operations. China is set to develop its own homegrown carrier force, with a domestic carrier potentially nearing completion by 2015. China is developing its nuclear submarine force, however, with nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets 7400km away. China is focusing on blue-water deployments, with the deployment of two warships and a supply vessel to anti-piracy missions off the Eastern coast of Africa in 2008, but these are still a far cry from the global patrols maintained by the United States. For now, China's most dangerous naval capabilities lie in its anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, which provide a significant deterrent to American carriers.
4. The whole picture:
China is growing rapidly, both economically and militarily. It is training its troops for a variety of different missions, while at the same time developing air and naval assets to allow it to become a global power. However, such developments will take decades. China needs time to build not just the technology for modern warfare, but also to develop the necessary proficiency for its forces to deploy these systems effectively. In the meantime, it has developed capable deterrents, using anti-air and anti-ship missiles to negate the United States' strengths. The United States still has a significant lead on China, boasting the most technologically advanced and experienced military. China must first develop global capabilities, engage in foreign deployments, and expose its soldiers to combat before it can hope to challenge the United States.