The rise of China as an emerging military power is obvious to anyone who is a student or follower of international security.

The People’s Republic of China is currently conducting a massive military modernization programme and its annual defence budget has exceeded £100 billion a year to a new effort to increase military spending to $161.7 billion dollars. This is approx. ¾ more than the previous defence budgets. This in itself means that China is serious about its military remaining credibility to any emerging threats.

It has one of the world’s largest air force, the world’s largest Coastguard, and has laid claim to a set of disputed Islands in the South China Sea.  Both on a political, economic and military level, China is set to rise to Superpower status, if it has not done so already. In terms of Gross Domestic Product, it is set to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, and is translating its enormous economic advantage into military potential which has implications for China’s diplomatic posture.

The 21st century will clearly be determined by the potential for conflict in the South China Sea, and possible wargame scenarios with a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a conflict with the US Navy. While the United States enjoys technological advantages second to none, China is close behind. President Obama’s pivot to Asia has been seen as one of a diplomatic failure, while Trump’s rearmament programme could be seen as one of trying to match the rise of China and reassert American dominance. Instead of de-securitizing the South China Sea area, I would argue President Trump’s plan for a 350 ship fleet is ambitious, but the military industrial complex may have difficulty in delivering on his rhetorical promises.

However his exclamations, and Obama’s previous failures it has emboldened Beijing to have a more assertive foreign policy, and as such could threat the security of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. This may actually have the opposite effect, and provoke China to become more militarily assertive causing an arms race.

As Political Scientist Mearsheimer (2001) argues in The Tragedy of Great Power politics often a state goes on the offensive when its power grows, so does its conception of its security interests grows. These ‘regional hegemons’ the author goes onto argue want to achieve global power and to achieve ‘global hegemony’ but this is unrealistic for any power to do so.  However, it does not stop emerging superpower like China wanting a bigger military or building its naval capabilities.

For the purposes of this article, it is necessary to quantify China’s current military strength, by bringing empirical validity to the claims that it is an emerging Superpower. If we are looking at the case study of the ‘War of Attrition’ which means that those with the most firepower are more likely to succeed in a war, China’s enormous number of manpower is to be considered and factored into any battle scenario. The total population of China is 1.37 billion people with an impressive manpower of three quarters of a billion people if necessary. Overall, 619,000,000 of those are deemed to be fit for service, and 19,550,000 fit for reaching military age. Its total military personnel has around 3.7 million altogether consisting of 2.36 million active duty personal and a reserve personnel at around 1.45 million (Global Firepower, 2017).

The National Interest (2015) published an article on why we should take China’s airpower seriously, and looked in particular at the ‘war-game’ scenario of China invading Taiwan and also South China Sea. While in summary the South China sea, the balance of power seemed to favour the United States, because of the proximity of the Islands, the statistics in relation to Taiwan is very revealing in this set of ‘wargames’ outcomes:

“The results were staggering. In 1996, China would have been a pushover, with just 2.1 U.S. air wings needed for air dominance over Taiwan. By 2003, that number would have soared to 10.6 wings, and 19.6 wings by 2010. By 2017, the U.S. would need 29.9 air wings—the equivalent of 2,000 aircraft. In other words, more aircraft than America could have the faintest hope of realistically deploying to defend Taiwan.”

While these findings was not based on actual air war analysis, and the data was open sourced, one thing is for certain that China has dramatically improved its air capabilities. Times have changed, and so with it China’s military strength.

Now let’s turn our attention to China’s growing naval capabilities. It now has two aircraft carriers in operation. One was purchased from Ukraine and was refitted according to Chinese specifications, and the other was built domestically. Statistically, its total naval assets number 715 vessels with 2 aircraft carriers, 51 frigates, 35 destroyers, 35 Corvettes, 68 submarines, 22o Patrol Craft and 31 Mine Warfare Vessels. It also have a merchant marine strength of 2000 ships with 15 major sea ports and terminals. Its Coast Guard has built impressive ships which have the tonnage and capabilities akin to a destroyer.

Its new ‘monster’ Coast Guard ship. It is the world’s largest coast guard vessel ever built by any nation on this Earth, and has a 12,000 tonnage. The Chinese Coast Guard Cutter (CCG) 3901 has successful completed its first patrol in the South China Sea area. (The Diplomat, 2017). Also what is interesting is the arming of coast guard cutters with 76 mm guns (Janes 360). In addition, China’s new coast guard vessels are designed to be converted rapidly into armed military frigates in times of war increasing the number of ships for the navy (The National Interest, 2016). Its navy has the potential to become a truly global presence which will impact on security for years to come as I have previous written about (Steward, 2017: UK Defence Journal).

To conclude, China has made rapid gains in the number of ships it operates, including its militarized Coast Guard, and also its air force, which can challenge United States air superiority and its naval dominance during an outbreak of a conflict – particularly in relation to Taiwan. I can see China’s attempting to gain military predominance in its region, and to challenge U.S. naval hegemony in the Pacific and elsewhere.

However, whether U.S. under Trump adjusts its foreign policy to see accommodation or containment of China will translate into whether there will be a security dilemma. Conflict is borne out of choice, and not necessity.

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Oliver Steward
Oliver is a student at the University of East Anglia studying for a PhD in International Security. His interests include strategy, grand strategy in the Middle East and the Asia Pacific, international relations and politics, maritime strategy, counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency warfare, and maritime policy.
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Dennis Reeves

The Chinese economy is built on exports, the US being one if it’s biggest markets.
If the pick a fight then the chinese economy will ve seriously damaged, and the US will be short on consumer electronics.
It can be argued the China is copying the US in it international policing role. Perhaps a joint plan with the US would make the world a safer place controlling extremism and jumping on states like N Korea.


If the US and China for into a war then thinking that China’s economy would collapse whilst the US would be able to easily bear it is ludicrous thinking. If the world’s second largest economy was destabilized then the US’s economy would go under too. Look what happened with the wall street crash. At the time the US wasn’t the world’s biggest economy, the UK was. Yet we still felt the repercussions of that. With how interconnected the world economies are that effect will be maganfied tenfold.

David Steeper

Lewis it’s generally agreed that the US overtook the UK in terms of GDP per capita durimg the first world war. In terms of total GDP long before that.


Roughly 1890-1900 that is why the Spanish-American War was considered such a shock. A country without much in the way of a Navy or standing Army built a world class Navy in less than 10yrs with seemingly little effort on itself. By 1910 the US Navy was tied for second largest Navy with Germany. The Army mobilized enough men to take Cuba in months. Spain’s remaining overseas empire taken by the USN and USMC in weeks.


Regardless it doesn’t change my point. America’s economy wouldn’t be immune. The opposite. That’s not even bringing up all the US debt owned by China.


China does not like interfering in other nations because they’re terrified of interference in their own country. The fall of Soviet communism terrified them & Tian’anmen square shows the response dissent can expect. Yet China is a huge & great nation & always will be. It does have colonial tendencies as in Xinjiang, Tibet & lately, the south China sea. They could indeed try to repossess Taiwan. That may be behind both the massive naval build up & the China sea bases. If they were really concerned with North Korea’s nuclear program, I would have thought they’d have forced it… Read more »

Dennis Reeves

Apologies for the typos. Can’t find my glasses.


Hi Dennis, It would be super if the US and China could overcome their numerous differences (freedom of speak etc) and work together. Looking at the whole economic picture, the image is a little more fuzzy than import/export. China is also the USA largest holder USA debt in the form of Bonds, notes and bills. It current holds 30% of the $4 Trillion foreign owned Treasury Bills etc. This amounts to $1.24 Trillion. Remember how the value of Gold dropped when the UK told the World it was going to sell off a lot of its gold reserves it caused… Read more »


I can’t see a military conflict every taking place between the US and China unless they invaded Japan or something. Even if they invaded Taiwan (Russia style), the worst the US would do is impose sanctions and it would be interesting to see what the economic fall out would be as they can both damage each other economically. As it stands Taiwan is unimportant so both have more to loose than gain from any conflict so lets hope it stays that way.


I can’t see a military conflict every taking place between the US and China

Some positive posts on the subject here, I for have to agree that there won’t be a major military conflict between the US and China. However I do believe there will be a Chinese instigated incident , which will be used by China to slap the US, or yes they will apologise, claiming cross wires and such, but the underlining message will be very clear to the countries which border China and the China sea.
“Don’t expect the US to bale you out.”


China’s peaceful rise will sometimes be at the point of a diplomatic or military gun.

Despite the rhetoric, it fully intends to use it’s new power and influence to further its own interests which are not the same as America’s, Russia’s, NATO, Europe or the rest of Asia.


What people are forgetting is the Chinese economy is more fragile than it appears. At first glance the National debt in China is as of 2016 55% of GDP but that is VERY misleading. Due to the semi communist system they are under most corporations are State owned and have debt the of over 170% of GDP. Currently in China you also have a Real Estate bubble the makes 2008 look like a picnic. Entire cities have been built with no residents. China’s holdings in American debt are overplayed by a media trying to make headlines and politicians trying to… Read more »

David Steeper

I don’t think there’s any inevitability about war between China and US. Historically military power has lagged behind economic power both when states are rising and declining. This is all (so far) that China is doing. Remember when the US replaced the UK as the global superpower it didn’t occasion war and neither could it with the US and China unless one or both choose to.

P tattersall

China’s got very little experience at fighting modern war and the weapons they have are totally untested


the u.s. has none too fighting a major and comparable military power with full options in space, the air, the sea, and cyberspace.