BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 03: Chinese troops are seen from a bus as they walk past Tiananmen Gate before a military parade on September 3, 2015 in Beijing, China. China is marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and its role in defeating Japan with a new national holiday and a military parade in Beijing. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Historically, the rise of new powers comes with the threat of war, especially if the new power is “revisionist,” or unhappy with the current international system and wants to completely overthrow it. In the 1930s, the rise of Germany led to World War Two, and after that, the rise of Soviet Union led to the Cold War. Today, the rise of China has led to a US-China trade war. It is debated whether the shift in the balance of power between the United States and China will result in conventional warfare in the future. However, after a look at the two countries’ military spending, the number of allies, and global reach, it is clear that China would be in no position to challenge the US militarily. 

Military Spending 

To this day, the United States surpasses all other countries in military spending, which accounted for 38% of the world’s total military spending in 2019 at USD 732 billion. On the other hand, in 2019, China spent USD 261 billion on military expenditures. Though China’s military budget has increased by 85% since 2010, the US still spends over twice the amount. 

Another important thing to note is where this military spending is going. Estimated military spending for the US from October 2020 to October 2021 is projected to be USD 934 billion. The majority of this money, or USD 705 billion, will go towards the Department of Defense, which is in charge of the security of the country. More specifically, the money will go towards nuclear modernization, missile defense, cyber and space programs, the air force, and the navy. The rest of the budget is allocated towards internal security such as Homeland Security and the State Department. 

While information regarding the Chinese government’s spending is not as readily available to the public, it is estimated that China spends a significant amount of its military budget on internal security. One estimate puts China’s internal security spending in 2017 at as much as USD 196 billion. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces unique challenges as a non-democratic country that prohibits freedom of speech, and consequently a lot of internal security measures are taken to crack down on separatist movements and protests. On top of that, China shares land borders with fourteen countries, so protecting both its sovereignty and borders appears to be a more immediate priority for the Chinese military than fighting the US.    


China only has one formal defense treaty. Signed in 1961, the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance states that either country must come to the other’s aid if attacked. However, Chinese scholars do not refer to North Korea as an “ally” and it is debated whether the treaty will be renewed in 2021. If not, China will have no defense treaties or formal military allies.

If the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the national army under the CCP, were to challenge the US militarily, the US would be at a great advantage if it dragged all of its allies into the conflict. Not only is the US a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), comprising thirty member states, but it also has more allies and defense partnerships in Asia than China does. The US has collective defense agreements with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. Additionally, Singapore has a pact with the US which allows the US military to use its air and naval bases, while Malaysia holds joint military exercises with US forces. 

Global Reach 

Despite the CCP’s goal of making the Chinese military “world-class” by 2049, it is currently focused almost entirely on regional issues. The US has over eight hundred military bases in fifty to eighty countries worldwide and has been active in conflict every decade since the start of the Cold War. Comparatively, China has three military bases, in Djibouti, Cambodia, and Tajikistan (although Djibouti is the only one publicly acknowledged). Moreover, the last war the PLA actively fought was in 1979 in Vietnam, and it only lasted one month. Despite participating in “realistic” military exercises, PLA soldiers are inexperienced compared to US soldiers in a real conflict. 

Looking at the CCP’s recent actions and the list of priorities outlined in its 2019 defense white paper, it is clear that, at least for now, China is predominantly worried about issues in its own backyard. Priorities include defending its claims to the disputed islands in the South China Sea, preventing Taiwanese independence, and defending its own sovereignty. There is no mention of missions abroad or taking any offensive military action. Rather, the defense paper explicitly states that China will “never threaten any other country or seek any sphere of influence.” 

While China is modernizing its military and increasing its defense budget, it still trails behind the US’ military capabilities worldwide. Both in raw statistics, military alliances, and priorities, China is still projecting military power predominately in its own region. The US military is more established, as exemplified by its budget, number of military agreements, and global reach. If the CCP achieves its goal of creating a world-class military by the Party’s 100th anniversary, it might be a competitive challenger to the US. But for now, it does not look like war is on the horizon any time soon.

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