China’s Military Capabilites Are Growing — But How Long Can They Keep It Up?

by Patrick Brennan

Chinese military spending, and capabilities, to the extent they can buy them, are increasing rapidly while the U.S.’s are not, Reihan points out below, in the course of explaining why we need to reexamine our trajectory. Another encouraging thought, though: China may not be able to maintain its trajectory for terribly long.

Representative Randy Forbes, whose piece (co-authored with Eldridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security) in The National Interest Reihan refers to, is an expert and eloquent advocate for defense spending and a thoughtful commentator on China. One encouraging note in his piece is his assurances that the U.S. can indeed afford and knows how to counter Chinese power in the western Pacific, something he echoed when he visited the offices of National Review not too long ago. As someone who occasionally feverishly reads a couple articles about China’s anti-ship missile capabilities — part of a system called A2/AD – and wonders how on earth are we going to protect our ships from this, I asked him about just that topic, and he had a much more optimistic answer than I expected.

The DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, against which many worry U.S. Navy ships could be defenseless

But he also had another broader point about meeting the challenge presented by China, mentioned in passing in his TNI piece: The Chinese only have a limited economic window for spending whatever they want on the military (and, as Reihan mentions, gettings of bang for their buck). Forbes, in fact, pegged at just about a decade more in which they can afford to continue ramping up their defense spending at the rates they have been. One needn’t subscribe to a seriously skeptical Gordon Chang–esque view of the Chinese economy to agree that it has serious structural and demographic problems that will slow growth dramatically — and permanently — at some point in the short or medium term and drive up government spending on issues besides defense.

The U.S., of course, doesn’t lack for economic and fiscal challenges of its own, but it has a history of politico-economic resilience and adaptability that post-Deng China just doesn’t. The economic situation, in other words, goes to reinforce Representative Forbes’s point that matching China in its littoral zones is feasible — and the benefits are huge.