“[Russia] presents the greatest threat to our national security,”General Joseph Dunford stated, the man slated to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Years before the current Ukraine crisis, Mitt Romney deemed Russia the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.” Such statements bring back memories of the Cold War, when the United States and Russia were at each other’s throats. Indeed, after a brief thawing in Russo-American relations under Yeltsin, 1980s-style geopolitics has returned with a vengeance under the Putin administration.
A closer look at Russia reveals that it is not the biggest threat to the United States. That honor goes to China, a nation far more powerful than Russia ever was. While Russia’s military budget is only $70 billion (less than Saudi Arabia’s and only a sixth of the United States’), China’s is $129 billion, or about 22 percent of America’s. And that’s just official numbers; the Chinese are notoriously opaque about how much they spend on their military. The actual number may be as high as $216 billion, more than a third of the United States’ military spending. China is already the only country besides the United States with a triple-digit defense budget. To make matters worse, China’s military spending is rapidly rising, growing by double digits since the early 1990s while the United States on the other hand has recently begun cutting its defense budget. If trends continue, China’s defense spending could race ahead of America’s within a decade.
In some areas, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has already surpassed the United States. The PLA has over 2.3 million active-duty personnel compared to the U.S. military’s 2.4 million and Russia’s 766,000. Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy recently told Congress that the Chinese Navy has more submarines than the United States. Unlike Russia, China will always have a quantitative advantage over the United States due to its massive population (Russia’s population is about 33 percent smaller than America’s).
The most worrying numbers involve economics. As Thucydides said, war is less a matter of arms than of money. Russia’s economy is roughly the size of Italy’s at $2.1 trillion, compared to America’s $18 trillion. On the other hand, China is the second largest economy in the world at $12 trillion. While it is unlikely that China’s economy will surpass America’s (especially given recent events), China has already come closer to matching the United States’ economic strength than any other potential adversary in a long time. The GDPs of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were never more than half the size of the United States’, while Imperial Japan’s GDP was only a tenth. China’s GDP is already two-thirds the size of America’s.
In industrial production, China has already surpassed the United States. Chinese manufacturing marginally edged out the United States in 2010 and is now 20 percent ahead of American industry. Manufacturing is arguably the most important economic factor in any competition between nations; wars are won through materiel, not services.
But it is is not just China’s capabilities that are worrying; China’s behavior has also grown increasingly aggressive in recent years. While much of the world’s attention remains focused on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the Chinese are steadily asserting dominance over the South and East China seas, which are strategically important regions that house lucrative trade routes and natural resources. The most recent wave of Chinese advances has been a blitz construction of artificial islands that have been nicknamed the Great Wall of Sand. These islands are meant to help China assert its territorial claim as well as serve as military bases for the PLA to project power into the region. The Middle Kingdom’s assertiveness has caused disputes with several of its neighbors, including Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. These tensions threaten to ignite a conflict in a key region through which $5.3 trillion in trade passes through, of which the United States accounts for $1.2 trillion. Since the Asia-Pacific region accounts for 40 percent of U.S. trade and at least 10 percent of U.S. GDP and employment, Chinese aggression in that part of the world has far greater implications for American interests than Russian aggression in Eastern Europe or Central Asia.
Some argue that China is simply too economically interconnected with the United States to be a serious threat. These people argue that it would be irrational for the Dragon to challenge the Eagle and upset the world order that it has benefited so much from. However, many scholars, such as Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics, have pointed out that in many ways the various European great powers were even more interconnected in 1914 than China and America are today. That didn’t stop a world war then and we shouldn’t expect it to stop one now.
Others argue that China simply doesn’t want a war. Chinese rhetoric often centers on its “peaceful rise.” However, China’s behavior from its military buildup to its assertiveness in the South China Sea indicates that the Middle Kingdom’s rhetoric does not reflect its actual thinking. Furthermore, even if China doesn’t want war now that does not mean it will grow more placid in the coming years. New leaders come into power, old leaders change their minds, and circumstances change. The Japanese expanded at a calculated rate meant to avoid upsetting the existing international order in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whenever other great powers protested their actions, the Japanese were quick to back off, as they did with the Twenty-One Demands against China. However, in the 1920s and ‘30s new and more militant leaders like Hideki Tojo emerged, and Japan ended up attacking China, Britain, and the United States. The same could happen in China, especially since, as Masahiro Matsumura of the University of St. Andrews points out, the PLA lacks proper civilian control just like the Imperial Japanese military.
Perhaps China will temper its behavior as a result of its recent economic downturn. Then again, perhaps economic woes will cause China to grow more aggressive in an attempt to distract its population from domestic issues or to boost the economy with the resources of its near seas.
Either way, China is not just a greater threat than Russia; China is the greatest threat the United States has faced in a very long time.