- While the United States still enjoys advantages over China in many key fields of national security competition, recent trends illustrate that American military dominance is stagnating and China is rapidly catching up.
- China is successfully leveraging asymmetric structural advantages, such as its authoritarian military-civil fusion and geographical position in the Indo-Pacific, to rapidly reach parity with or exceed the United States’ military capabilities.
- Further complacency about these issues will only ensure that Chinese capabilities surpass those of the United States sooner than expected.
In military capability and capacity, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States may soon be on an equal footing. US House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) recently affirmed that “China is rapidly approaching parity with the United States.”1 A few years ago, the Defense Department’s 2020 China military power report similarly noted, “China has already achieved parity with—or even exceeded—the United States in several military modernization areas.”2 The report highlighted land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, shipbuilding, and integrated air defense systems as key areas of concern.
A recent development in these concerning trends is a memo that US Strategic Command sent to Congress in January 2023.3 That memo revealed a startling finding: China now has more land-based (stationary and mobile) intercontinental ballistic missile launchers than the United States. This is but one instance in a string of examples of China rapidly catching up and exceeding the United States in military capability and capacity.
Beijing continues to leverage key structural advantages that are accelerating these gains. According to the Pentagon, China’s national strategy considers military modernization a key component of its effort to revise the international order to support Beijing’s system of governance and national interests.4 It demonstrates this intention through strategies such as military-civil fusion, which blurs or eliminates barriers between government and commercial sectors to build a more capable military at a rapid clip. Compared to the US, China develops and produces advanced capabilities at a fraction of the cost and time by avoiding burdensome bureaucratic processes that provide oversight and allow for open competition.
China also benefits from its geography in the Indo-Pacific: The likely near-term theaters of conflict are close to the PRC’s shores and thousands of miles from the US mainland. For this reason, China need not even wait to surpass America’s raw capabilities to obtain the competitive advantage in several key areas. Following is an overview of 10 areas in which the US national security apparatus has fallen behind or is due to fall behind the Chinese military, absent significant efforts and intervention.
- Michael R. Gordon, “China Has More ICBM Launchers Than U.S., American Military Reports,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-has-more-icbm-launchers-than-u-s-american-military-reports-11675779463.
- US Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China: Annual Report to Congress, 2020, vii, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF.
- Anthony J. Cotton, letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member, January 26, 2023, https://armedservices.house.gov/sites/republicans.armedservices.house.gov/files/HASC%20Response%20-%20China%20ICBM%20Notification.pdf.
- US Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China: Annual Report to Congress, 2022, iii, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Nov/29/2003122279/-1/-1/1/2022-MILITARY-AND-SECURITY-DEVELOPMENTS-INVOLVING-THE-PEOPLES-REPUBLIC-OF-CHINA.PDF.