New Estimate Of Chinese Military Spending Doesn’t Hold Water

Most experts accept the fact that China’s official, published estimates of its military budget are an understatement. But China hawks have seized upon that grain of truth to concoct poorly documented estimates that overstate the military challenge posed by Beijing.

So it is with the new paper on Chinese military spending released this week by the American Enterprise Institute. It takes real issues like China’s failure to include all of its military-related activities in its official budget and the fact that China’s military inputs are cheaper than America’s and uses them to justify a huge, fantasy number on Chinese spending that cannot be justified by any credible evidence.

AEI’s intellectual gymnastics put Chinese military spending at over $700 billion per year. An analysis I did for the Brown Costs of War Project last year takes account of the same issues cited by AEI, as well as alternative takes, and finds that even under the worst case scenario, China spends only about half of what the United States spends for military purposes. Add to this that a significant part of China’s military is devoted to internal security, and that its forces are largely untested, since it has not fought in an actual conflict in over 40 years. And in that case – the 1979 invasion of Vietnam – China did not fare particularly well in the face of smaller but highly motivated Vietnamese forces.

The AEI paper also ignores the fact that spending alone is a poor measure of military capability. In terms of traditional military power – from numbers of nuclear weapons to naval tonnage to numbers of modern combat aircraft – China lags far behind the United States. Its military is at best configured for a regional role, and much of what it possesses is more appropriate for defense than offense.