As diplomatic tensions grow between the United States and China, so pessimistic observers have floated the idea of a military conflict. In this context, it is interesting and informative to compare the military capabilities of these two superpowers. The United States has been the largest economy in the world for many years, but it is now suggested by some sources that the China has exceeded, at least in pure GDP terms. This puts the two nations in a uniquely unchallenged position, and in many ways ensures that there is a natural enmity between them.
US vs. China – Demographics
China is the world’s most populous nation, and it therefore goes without saying that it has a huge fighting force at its disposal. It could also be suggested that the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government ensures that military conscription and drafting is always considerably more likely, along with more concerted efforts to encourage people to sign up for the military and engage in national service.
But the first thing to note is that the population of China is over four times that of the United States. China has a population in excess of 1.3 billion people, whereas the United States population is just over 320 million. This means that the manpower available to China at any given time is five times that of the United States, with the Chinese able to call upon nearly 750 million people.
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Naturally, with these sort of demographics, the number of people reaching military age annually is much higher in China. This figure is around 19.5 million in the world’s most populated country, whereas the same figure in the United States is just over 4 million. This all adds up to a significantly higher active military personnel in China, with active military and reserves in China equal to around 4.6 million people, compared to 2.5 million in the United States.
US vs. China – Air Power
One would expect the United States to reign supreme in this department, and this expectation would be emphatically correct. The United States has nearly 14,000 active military aircraft, compared the to under 3,000 in China. In every area of military aircraft, it can be noted that the United States is vastly superior in number, and it could also be asserted that it enjoys a clear technological advantage in this department as well.
United States vs. China – Land Systems
Both the United States and China benefit from a huge amount of land-based military equipment, and it would be reasonable to assert that the two nations are extremely evenly matched in this department. China has marginally more tanks than the United States according to the latest figures, but there is a trivial difference between the two nations in this area. It is estimated that China has 9,150 active tanks, which compares very similarly to the United States, which is purported to have around 8,800 active vehicles of this nature.
One area where there is a larger disparity between the two countries is with regard to armored fighting vehicles. This is evidently not considered a particularly important aspect of the Chinese defense policy, with the nation only currently having just under 5,000 such vehicles in his possession. By contrast, the United States is rumored to have in excess of 41,000 armored fighting vehicles at its disposal at present.
Land-based military equipment is much more evenly matched, though. China and the United States are both reported to have a similar amount of self-propelled guns, and multiple-launch rocket systems. But China has a real edge in towed-artillery, with its military machinery featuring roughly 500% more of this aspect of land-based systems than is currently available to the United States.
US vs. China – Naval Systems
The United States is traditionally known as one of the world’s great naval powers in history, but China has been investing very heavily in this department and it could be argued that it has superior naval strength to the United States. Of course, this is very much a subjective matter, as many would argue that the United States boasts far greater experience in terms of deployment, and this would count for more than mere weight of numbers.
However, what can be said is that the total naval strength of China is currently estimated to be 673 vessels. This is presumed to be around 200 more than the United States. But the aforementioned difference in deployment is perhaps better illustrated by the fact that China currently only has one active aircraft carrier, as compared to 20 associated with the United States. The US also has a slight edge in terms of submarines, with reports indicating that China has 67 such vessels available at present, compared to the 72 at the disposal of the United States.
US vs. China – Nuclear Weapons
Both the United States and China are among the five nuclear states according to the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This multilateral agreement ensures that it is legitimate under international regulations for both China and the United States to retain a certain amount of nuclear weapons.
Owing to the mutually assured destruction policy which was implemented during the Cold War, the United States remains the world’s greatest nuclear power in terms of total warheads (although some estimations suggest that Russia slightly exceed its quotient) with just under 5,000 active warheads. It is worth noting that there are significant fluctuations in the estimation of the United States’ nuclear capabilities. By contrast, China’s nuclear weapons stock is not so well documented, but it is generally presumed to have in the region of 250 nuclear weapons.
US vs. China – Economics
One of the most important aspects of any military is economic funding; as Napoleon noted an army always marches on its stomach. So resources available to the military at any given time are particularly important, thus noting the economic position of the two nations should be considered important in understanding their military capabilities.
The first thing to notice that the external debt of the United States is significantly higher than that of China, currently around $17 trillion. This is three times that of the Chinese national debt, but it is notable that China has massively increased this figure in recent years as it has rapidly developed the infrastructure of the nation. Therefore, when comparing the economic position of the two nations, it is not entirely valid to cite the higher national debt of the United States as been critically significant. Both countries are certainly significantly indebted, and it should be considered a major economic issue for both nations, but it has been increasingly suggested that the debt bubble will pop first in East Asia.
Meanwhile, the defense budget of the United States ensures that it should remain ahead of China militarily for the foreseeable future. In 2015, the defense budget of the United States is $637 billion, which is well over four times that of China, with the most recent Chinese defense budget amounting to the equivalent of $131 billion.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the two nations is that China remains a massive holder of US treasuries. This actually ensures that the two nations share something of a common interest, and could hopefully pave the way to a peaceful relationship between the two superpowers.