China’s March to Military Dominance

By Dan Blumenthal


August 23, 2023

The seminal report written by my American Enterprise Institute colleague Mackenzie Eaglen shows that US military primacy, which underwrote American and allied post–World War II security and prosperity, is under serious threat. The report concludes that we are falling behind China in many critical domains of military power. 

The PRC spends almost as much as the US does on defense, with far fewer global obligations. In what should shock political leaders, despite supporting a war to repel a Russian invasion in the middle of Europe and a commitment across two presidential administrations to arrest China’s strategy of global revisionism, the US defense budget as a percentage of GDP is at its smallest since before World War II. China has translated its decades-long period of economic growth into military power and has bought itself the world’s most lethal missile force, the world’s largest navy and “maritime militia.” Through a combination of military largesse and industrial policy, China is now “the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage.” 

China is already ahead of the US in hypersonic weapons and likely in certain military AI applications, and is vigorously competing in space and cyber where its military-civilian fusion program enables the mobilization of the civilian sector for military purposes. Thus, the very fact that PRC industries dominate the critical minerals processing sectors provides an added military advantage. China’s recent export controls on gallium and germanium showcase its willingness to weaponize critical minerals. China produces 60 percent of the world’s germanium and 80 percent of the world’s gallium, both of which are key to producing specialized electronics and semiconductors used in the defense industry.

My experience as a DoD official in charge of China and Taiwan policy back in the early aughts and a long-time China watcher is this: it is now popular to blame Xi Jinping for China’s aggression. But that is an all too convenient way to avert responsibility for ignoring the China threat as it gathered. The PRC’s military modernization program began in 1993 as a response to an assessment that the US was China’s main threat. The DoD already started putting out warnings in the form of reports on China’s military power in 2002. Over the last two decades, it has become clear that the Chinese Communist Party was looking not just to meet, but surpass US military power. It was already using its newfound might in the East and South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait under former General Secretary Hu Jintao in the first decade of the 21st century. It announced its commitment to building its global maritime power before Xi Jinping ascended. We did little to nothing about it. It is popular now to speak of a Washington’s China Consensus that has formed to counter China’s aggression. But for too long, the consensus across both political parties has been that China’s rise was peaceful, and that its growth in military might was all just part of a “natural” and benign adjunct to economic growth. Indeed, China was invited to participate in the provision of global public goods such as anti-piracy and anti-terror missions even as it worked to undermine the international system that provided those goods in the first place. 

We now face a rival peer competitor that is set to overtake us in relevant military power. The consequences are stark, as history is replete with dangerous examples of a global military balance shifting in a rival’s favor. Mackenzie Eaglen does us a service in calling attention to our inexcusable inattention.

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