The People’s Liberation Army, 2018. AP Photo/Sergei Grits
According to Global Firepower, a military data site, China comes in at No. 3 for the world’s most powerful militaries. This ranking takes about 55 different factors into account, including defense spending, manpower, weapons, geography, economy, and more.
The “most powerful” military in the world is the U.S., followed by Russia, who just barely edges out China. But these three global superpowers are tightly packed into their top-three ranking, with similar scores across the board. So, even though the U.S. is rated better than China, who’s to say who would win in a head-to-head battle?
Although the U.S. and China aren’t directly embroiled in conflict, the recent trade war sparked by the Trump administration leaves things far from peachy. Not to mention the fact that China is America’s biggest economic competitor — and a communist nation, which Americans tend to view unfavorably.
Overall, tensions between the two countries have been escalating for a while, which brings about an important question: How advanced is China’s military? And, in the event of direct conflict, what might be the outcome?
China’s Military by the Numbers
Let’s take a look at the data on the People’s Liberation Army, aka the Chinese military, from Global Firepower; which landed China their No. 3 spot in the world’s best militaries.
- Manpower: ~3,135,000
- Defense Budget: $237 billion
- Second-most fighter aircraft: 1,199
- Second-most armored vehicles: 33,000
- Second-most rocket projectors: 2,650
- Second-most total naval assets: 777
China has more manpower than the U.S. military, though far less than Russia’s — who has 3.6 million service members. To be fair, China’s population of nearly 1.4 billion dwarfs the United States’, so the disparity in manpower really isn’t that large.
Here are some of the U.S.’s numbers for comparison:
- Manpower: ~2,260,000
- Defense Budget: $761 billion
- First in fighter aircraft: 1,914
- First in airpower: 13,300 assets
- First in armored vehicles: 39,253
- First in aircraft carriers and destroyers: 11; 92
While the Chinese military has more total naval assets and rocket power, the U.S. leads by far in airpower and armored vehicles and tanks. Though, a main difference there may be the U.S.’s defense spending, which is over three times that of China’s.
China Is Catching Up Quickly
Although the U.S. military appears to be leading China’s, the current numbers don’t tell the whole story. Because when you’re asking “How advanced is China’s military?” you need to take their trajectory into account.
Between 1996 and 2015, China increased its military spending by a staggering 620%. And their economy is on track to overtake the United States’ in total GDP by 2030. In order to staunch this explosive growth, the U.S. may need to shift its focus from the Middle East to different eastern neighbors.
Here’s what we know about China’s military development:
- China is in process of creating new and advanced military weapons
- These include long-range weapons, advanced space weapons, directed energy weapons, electromagnetic railguns, and more
- They’re leading the U.S. in artificial intelligence
According to Business Insider, in early 2018 Chinese hackers were able to successfully breach and steal information from a U.S. military contractor about a secretive Navy project called “Sea Dragon.” It was intended to upgrade current American weapons systems.
Aside from stealing information, China is working on breaking down and disrupting U.S. battlefield communications. Their efforts to one-up the U.S. in cybersecurity have also extended to advanced weapons. Their focus has been on long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, where in some cases the ranges have been outpacing U.S. missiles.
Finally, while artificial intelligence (AI) is highly controversial in the U.S., China has long been taking advantage of it to track and control its large population. This gives them a leg up on military AI like autonomous unmanned systems, automated decision making — even human-machine hybrid intelligence.
How Advanced Is China’s Military?
So, how advanced is China’s military, really? Well, while Global Firepower is currently ranking below Russia, we could see that change in 2021. China is an economic powerhouse and appears to be throwing much of their weight behind their military.
Though with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus stemming from China, they could very well be the economy most impacted by this global pandemic. But it should be mentioned that they managed to contain and slow the spread of the virus through decisive action, and it remains to be seen if U.S. efforts will have the same effect.
In the coming months, Americans will want to pay attention to whether COVID-19 is bringing together two of the world’s leading economies, or tearing them farther apart.
As it stands, China’s military is still a step behind the U.S. And for it to stay that way, American leaders may want to explore different foreign policy actions rather than endlessly infusing more capital into its already massive defense budget.