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China’s military power could match America’s by 2050

A top congressional panel is worried about China’s military advances.

Members of a military honor guard before a ceremony at Tiananmen Square, on the eve of National Day on September 30, 2018 in Beijing, China. 
Members of a military honor guard before a ceremony at Tiananmen Square, on the eve of National Day on September 30, 2018 in Beijing, China. 
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping wants his military to be as powerful as America’s by 2050 — and his control of major economic and military institutions in his country could help him do just that.

That’s one of the major takeaways from an annual congressional report released Wednesday morning. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which provides lawmakers with a yearly update about developments in Beijing, noted that the country has made significant advancements in hypersonic weapons, cyber abilities, and space defense.

What’s more, Xi has promoted greater integration among Chinese military services. That means the country is moving toward a “joint” model similar to the way America’s military branches like the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force operate with one another.

“We’re seeing a massive reorganization of the [Chinese] military in order to provide more guidance from the top,” Robin Cleveland, the commission’s chair, told a small group of reporters during a preview on Tuesday.

These developments are part of what the report’s authors call the “partyification” of China, where Xi and the country’s Communist Party exert influence over the nation’s major economic and security organizations. It gives Xi, who could be China’s leader for life, greater authority to throw his country’s muscle around.

“The new structural changes are enabling the party to assert more active and enduring control of military decision-making and operations,” Abigail Grace, a China expert at the Center for a New American Security and former staffer in President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, told me. “This means that Chinese military modernization efforts are inseparable from revisionist aims by the country’s Communist Party.”

What’s more, Grace noted, the military is an instrument of the party, not the state, which means its first priority will be to protect the party at all costs.

So if the report is correct, and China continues on this path, the United States’s decades of mostly unchecked military power may soon come to an end.

What a strong Chinese military means for the US

China increased its military budget this year to $175 billion — an 8.1 percent increase compared to 2017.

Adam Ni, an expert on China’s military at the Australian National University, wrote for the National Interest in March that Beijing has already made great advances in drones, stealth warplanes, missiles, and more. It’s also making great strides in artificial intelligence and quantum computing that could give Beijing’s armed forces an advantage over the technology in the hands of US troops.

But the real advancement, the commission notes, is in hypersonic missiles. In August, for example, China tested one that could be nearly impossible for the United States to stop because it flies six times faster than the speed of sound. That’s scary, especially since such a missile could carry nuclear warheads.

And while the report’s authors won’t say if China is a “peer competitor” — a wonky term meaning that China is basically as powerful as the United States in all domains — they note that Beijing’s military could further advance its interests in the South China Sea despite American protestations. That body of water is extremely contested, but China has by far the most powerful military there, allowing it to keep vessels belonging to other countries out.

That aggression could then spiral out of control and cause a greater conflict. The US would struggle to enter the region and quell the potential fighting if China’s military continues to gain strength.

It’s not yet clear if China will eventually become as powerful as the US — the US could improve its military a lot, too — but the report’s writers indicate that America has had trouble curbing Beijing’s military rise.

“Had we addressed some of these issues years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Carolyn Bartholomew, the commission’s vice chair, told reporters on Tuesday.

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