Washington Is Exaggerating China’s Military Budgets

The U.S. Congress has just reached a tentative agreement to appropriate $886 billion for the Defense Department and related work on nuclear weapons at the Energy Department, and if all goes as planned, the Biden administration will release its new budget request in early February. The central justification for this spending—which is at one of the highest levels since World War II—is China, which the Pentagon routinely refers to as the “pacing threat” driving U.S. strategy.

Assessing the potential military threat from China is an art, not a science. Information regarding the details—how much the Chinese are spending, how the funds are being spent, whether the technologies they are investing in will work as advertised, how long it will take to get from the research stage to workable systems, and how the military spending will trend over the next 10 to 15 years—is hard to come by due to both a lack of transparency and the inherent difficulties involved in predicting the pace of technological development.

But there is ample evidence to suggest that China hawks in the Pentagon and Congress are overstating China’s military capabilities while underplaying the value of dialogue and diplomacy in addressing the challenges that Beijing poses to the United States and its allies.

One key front in the debate on Pentagon spending is the controversy over how much China actually spends on its own military. There’s no debate that Chinese spending has substantially increased over the past two decades as its economy has skyrocketed. Yet the most recent analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—the standard source for global comparisons of military outlays—suggests that the United States still outspends China by a healthy margin of 3-to-1.