18. China’s rapid growth in military power.

China has been rapidly expanding its military power, and in particular it has been expanding it in ways which will enable it to exercise its own imperialist military intervention into other countries in the future. It understands full well that the maintenance of the present world imperialist system depends to a large degree on U.S. military power, and—unlike many other imperialist countries which really have little choice in this matter—China is unwilling to accept this reliance on a permanent basis.

A recent book by the Western journalist Geoff Dyer put it this way:

“To keep its economy humming, China feels it needs to start molding the world it is operating in. China’s economy relies on the continued safety of seaborne trade—something which has been guaranteed since the end of the Second World War by the navy of the United States, the country which the Chinese elite mistrusts the most (with the possible exception of Japan). Like other great powers before it, China is building a navy to take to the high seas because it does not want to outsource the security of its economic lifelines to someone else.”[1]

For “the safety of seaborne trade”, he says! That’s a very disingenuous way of putting it even though there are actually a few pirates operating in Southeast Asian waters and in the Indian Ocean. By far the biggest threat to the transfer of wealth from the rest of the world to the ruling bourgeoisies of the major imperialist powers comes not at sea, but rather ultimately from the revolutionary masses within the countries whose wealth is being looted! The primary peacetime role of imperialist military power is not to “protect the sea lanes” but to keep exploited countries open for further foreign exploitation. But Dyer is correct to say that China is doing its very best to rapidly improve its military forces (naval and otherwise) so that it no longer needs to “outsource” this task to the U.S. and other imperialist countries.

Let’s start by examining the rapid and consistent growth of Chinese military expenditures.

In talking about military expenditures in the world today the first thing to note is that U.S. military expenditures remain huge! A few years ago, U.S. spending on the military almost matched that of the entire rest of the world combined! As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have wound down, the share of U.S. military spending in the world has dropped to 40%—which, of course is still enormous. No other country comes close.

And yet, what are the trends in world military spending today? Figure 18.1 below shows the 2012 military expenditures for a number of important countries and also the growth (or decline) rates for their military budgets for the 2011-2012 one-year period and for the 2002-2012 ten-year period.

Figure 18.1: Military Expenditures in Selected Countries (2012)[2]

In billions of constant 2012 U.S. dollars



% of World Total

% Growth in Past Year

% Growth in Past 10 Years

United States



- 6.0















- 0.8





- 0.5

- 2.4




- 0.3

- 0.4

Saudi Arabia








- 2.8






- 2.9




- 5.1

- 17.9




- 0.5





- 4.0





- 3.1






- 11.6





- 10.0




- 12.9

- 18.2

South Africa





World Total



- 0.5


For the one year period of 2011 to 2012 U.S. military spending dropped by 6.0% while China’s increased by 7.8% and Russia’s increased by 15.7%. But much more instructive is what has happened over the last decade: Over that period U.S. annual military expenditures increased by nearly 50% (mostly because of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Russia’s military spending went up by 126.1%, which reflects the fact that Russian imperialism has been getting back on its feet after the final disastrous collapse of the state-capitalist Soviet Union in 1991. But by far the largest and most consistent increases in military spending on a regular yearly basis have been in China. Its expenditures went up by an amazing 198.3% over the past decade. Or putting it another way, China’s annual military spending in 2012 was just short of 3 times what it was as recently as 2002!

Year after year China increases its military budget by percentages that no other country, including the U.S., can afford. In other words, it is continually gaining military strength in comparison to the U.S. and other countries, though the U.S. (and perhaps also Russia) are still militarily stronger overall.

And, once again, we have to point out that even these statistics greatly understate the actual situation since they are based on official exchange rates. It costs a whole lot less in China to pay, feed, house and train a division of soldiers than it does in the U.S. And it costs a whole lot less to build a tank, jet airplane or missile submarine in China than it does in the U.S. If PPP conversion rates are used to convert Chinese military expenditures into dollars, China’s military spending is substantially closer to that of the U.S. than the chart suggests.

But still, at present, China continues to be well behind the U.S. in military spending. However, as we’ve said, the trend here is for China to fairly rapidly catch up to the U.S. If, as could well happen, the U.S. is forced to make some deep cuts in its military spending over the next decade and a half, because the developing economic crisis takes further turns for the worse, then China might catch up to or even surpass the U.S. in military spending during that period. (China will also be very negatively affected by the world capitalist economic crisis, but probably not as soon or as severely at first.)

In fact we are already seeing a significant new decline in U.S. military spending right now because of the Budget Control Act (more commonly referred to as the “sequester” on Federal government spending) that is now scheduled to lead to an additional cut of $500 billion in the Pentagon budget over the next 9 years in addition to the $487 billion in cuts already underway. Originally this was not meant to actually occur; the deal between the Democrats and Republicans included the Pentagon reductions only as a means to force the Republicans to eventually back off on cuts to other programs. But as the Economist magazine recently noted, “It turns out that Republicans hate taxes even more than they love the armed forces.”[3]

On February 24, 2014, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined the additional cuts in military spending planned for fiscal year 2015, and large cuts in troop strength—to a level of 440,000 active duty soldiers—which has not been seen since before World War II. These cuts include eliminating an entire fleet of Air Force fighter planes. Hagel called these cuts “difficult choices” that will change defense institutions for years to come, and also noted that even deeper cuts will be necessary if the sequestration plan continues in fiscal year 2016. The cuts assume that the U.S. will no longer become involved in major, prolonged wars to try to establish “stability” in neocolonial countries such as the recent super-expensive debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.[4]

It thus appears that the continuing U.S. budget crisis and U.S. and world economic crisis will be forcing continued reductions in U.S. military spending for years to come.

In European countries too this is happening, and there have been recent indications that other NATO countries will not only refuse to fund more of the massive costs of NATO (as the U.S. has been pleading for), but that many of them may actually further cut their own existing levels of funding. NATO funding by the top seven European contributors—the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain—has already dropped by more than 10% since 2009. Some ruling class defense analysts are now saying that new military budget cuts and declining funding risks destabilizing NATO over the long term.[5]

A popular theory exists that the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in its long Cold War struggle largely because it forced an ultra-expensive arms race on the Soviets which they just could not afford. This supposedly wrecked the Soviet economy and led to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Actually, this is gross exaggeration of what happened. The more fundamental truth was simply that Soviet state capitalism, with its much higher degree of monopoly and intractable bureaucratic corruption and stagnation could simply not compete with Western-style monopoly capitalism at all! The Soviet workers were totally fed up with the system; their widespread bitter joke was that “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us!” In other words, it was not just the arms race that did in Soviet state capitalism and social-imperialism, but its generally even more moribund overall economic system.

In any case, it is sometimes argued today that a similar arms race between the U.S. and China could now be used to defeat this new Chinese imperialist upstart! The obvious flaw in that argument is that the Chinese economy—even with its higher degree of official state ownership of many corporations and its higher degree of state interference in its private economy than in the U.S.—is nevertheless clearly much more dynamic and successful than the comparatively more moribund U.S. economy! And while the neocons did think about attempting the same sort of arms race with China to try to defeat it, it looks like in practice China is pushing the same contest against the U.S. and with a much better prospect of eventual success!

Figure 18.2 below provides some comparisons of the military strength of the 10 countries with the most powerful militaries. By this ranking, from a bourgeois website, China is already the third most powerful country militarily. (It may well actually have the second most powerful military.) It has the largest standing army, and the second largest number of tanks, airplanes and submarines.

Figure 18.2: Comparative Military Forces[6]


Active Forces






Total Aircraft




Naval Ships


Aircraft Carriers




Nuclear Weapons








10 (a)




















1 (b)










1 (c)










1 (d)























S. Korea































Notes:Active forces & reserves do not include paramilitary forces, which are quite large in some countries.

* Early 2013 data.

a) Plus 2 old carriers in reserve, 2 more under construction, and 1 more ordered (for delivery in 2025). However, the “sequester cuts”, if they continue, may force the moth-balling of as many as 3 present U.S. carriers.

b) More are planned. (At least 3 more are already under construction.)

c) Plus 1 being rebuilt, and 2 more under construction (1 of which was launched in Aug. 2013).

d) Plus 2 under construction.

There are two very different sorts of wars that a rapidly rising capitalist-imperialist country like China must prepare for: 1) an inter-imperialist war (directly against another powerful imperialist country); and 2) an imperialist war against a much weaker, probably economically less developed (“Third World”) country. (“Proxy wars” between imperialist powers are generally variations on this second type, since they typically take place in less developed countries and involve combat by competing local forces each partially armed by the contending imperialist powers.)

Perhaps surprisingly, it is actually cheaper to prepare to fight an inter-imperialist war, or at least to build up a sufficient retaliatory capability that such a war becomes significantly less likely. By acquiring nuclear weapons, ICBMs,[7] nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines, dangerous anti-ship missiles, anti-satellite capabilities, and so forth, China has very likely already forestalled the possibility of any direct full-scale war between it and any other imperialist country (meaning the U.S. especially) any time soon. Only in the most dire and desperate circumstances (which are by no means inconceivable) is such a direct, all-out nuclear war at all likely to break out between the China and the U.S. over the next couple decades.

China presently has only one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which is a refitted and improved carrier formerly belonging to Ukraine. However, a second carrier is being built in the Dalian shipyard, and should be ready in 2018. The third and fourth Chinese carriers are expected to be completed by 2020.[8]

Aircraft carriers may already be essentially obsolete in any full-scale inter-imperialist war.[9] The reason for this is that they have become so vulnerable to modern nuclear-weapon laden missiles and torpedoes. Russia produces two especially feared supersonic guided missiles, called the Klub (3M-54) and the Yakhont, which can be launched from land, aircraft, ships or submarines, which carry large warheads (meaning potentially nuclear warheads), and reach targets 300 km away.[10] China is one of several countries which has purchased these fearsome weapons (and is also no doubt working to produce them itself). Russia also produces a rocket-powered torpedo (which China probably also has) called the VA-111 Shkval (“Squall”) with a range of 11 km and a speed above 370 kilometers/hour which cannot be dodged or stopped by U.S. warships—which means the only thing they can safely do is stay out of range.[11]

So why then do the imperialist powers have so many carriers, and why are most of these countries (including China) building more of them? It is because carriers are now actually primarily weapons that are useful in imperialist wars against much weaker, economically underdeveloped and exploited countries (the so-called “Third World”). Carriers are mobile airfields which allow their imperialist owners to bomb most parts of the world.[12]

Many other weapons systems are like this too—of much more use in imperialist wars against weak and less economically developed countries than against other imperialist countries possessing modern countermeasures to them. Drones (remotely controlled aircraft) are another good example, since they are usually easily shot down by opponents with advanced missile systems. It is no accident that China has been rapidly expanding its development and production of drone aircraft as well as building more carriers.

China first publicly demonstrated its drones in October 2009, during its National Day parade. As of 2011 it already had at least 280 operational drones that could be used for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, precision strike missions and electronic warfare” according to one U.S. military think tank report. China’s drone program is apparently very sophisticated, and it might even have models which are superior to those the U.S. has been using to assassinate “terrorists” (and civilians!) in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The author of the study said of Chinese drone technology, “They're certainly far more advanced than I expected them to be. You get the impression they're doing very advanced, cutting-edge research.”[13] And China, even more than the U.S. apparently, has been working toward building drones that might be able to survive under “contested” conditions (i.e., to evade air and missile attacks directed against them).[14]

The Chinese navy is also imbued with a “going out” perspective, which could prove very useful not only in defending China and re-conquering Taiwan, but also in extending Chinese military power all around the world.

Figure 18.3: The First and Second Island Chains[15]

The First and Second Island Chains

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (or “PLAN”) was originally mostly a sort of coast guard operation (or “Brown-water navy”), but has become what is sometimes referred to as a “Green-water navy”, that is, one which still does not usually stray very far from home. It is currently being transformed step-by-step into a “Blue-water navy” patrolling the oceans of the world, and supporting Chinese interests wherever they might be overseas. The PLA Navy is already patrolling the South China Sea and surrounding area out to the “First island chain” (Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines), and the next step will be to have it start regular operations out to the “Second island chain” (well out into the Pacific as far as Guam, Micronesia and Australia).[16] But the PLA Navy has already ventured even beyond this region at times, as for example into the Indian Ocean to “fight pirates” off of Somalia. It also sends its submarines into the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

The Chinese military has also placed a major focus on Internet espionage and warfare. There have been many news reports over the past year about how semi-secret Chinese military units are stealing economic information from corporations around the world and passing it on to Chinese companies.[17] In this particular sphere, however, the military thrust is not directed against less developed countries, but is more of a form of inter-imperialist contention and economic struggle.

China is also making a major push to catch up to, and eventually surpass, the U.S. and Russia in space technology. In early June 2013 China sent its fifth manned space mission since 2003 into space, the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft with 3 astronauts, to test docking procedures with an experimental space lab already in orbit.[18]

The U.K. newspaper, the Daily Mail, in reporting this space flight, went on to note that China is still a long way behind the U.S. in space technology, but then added:

“Still, the Shenzhou 10 mission will be the latest show of China’s growing prowess in space and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.

“China also plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the moon, but not before 2020.

“While Beijing insists its space programme is for peaceful purposes, a Pentagon report last month highlighted China’s increasing space capabilities and said Beijing was pursuing a variety of activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.

“Fears of a space arms race with the United States and other powers mounted after China blew up one of its own weather satellites with a ground-based missile in January 2007.”[19]

On December 15, 2013, China accomplished that planned soft-landing of a rover on the moon, the first time this had been done by any country since 1976.[20] And while it is true that putting unmanned rovers on the moon was indeed done by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union decades ago, the scientific community has been surprised by how sophisticated this new Chinese rover is and by the fact that it is doing important science.[21] This success moves the plan to put one or more Chinese astronauts on the moon a step closer.

There is even the possibility that China may try to be the first country to send a manned mission to Mars![22] But manned space travel is not the primary purpose of any nation’s activities in space; it has much more to do with military issues. Satellites have become essential to military spying, GPS navigation, guidance for missiles, military communications, and in other ways. And the ability to destroy (or jam, or fool or take control of) an opponent’s satellites has become a critically important aspect of war. In space, as on Earth, China is clearly preparing for a possible future showdown with the United States.

Finally, we should make note of the fact that while China is still behind the U.S. in military spending, and in various important ways in military power, we should also recognize that even from the military standpoint the U.S. is not as overpoweringly strong as is often supposed, and the rapid improvement in China’s military power does not have as far to go in order to catch up with the U.S. as might be imagined.

First, it should be recognized that the U.S. military machine is tremendously bloated! It has large numbers of bases in the U.S. and over 1,000 bases overseas—many of which it doesn’t really need, and serve little military purpose.[23] Many of the bases at home are maintained only to keep Congressmen happy (because of the money spent in their districts). In the same sort of way, many military weapons programs are extremely wasteful, or not even very useful. Again, the primary (hidden) purpose of many of these programs is actually “military Keynesianism”[24]—attempting to keep the U.S. economy going in a way that even Republicans (who are opposed to most government spending) generally support. For reasons such as this, the militarily effective portion of the U.S. military budget is only a part of the whole.

Second, there is the whole “fight the last war” syndrome which is so common among established military powers. A lot of the weaponry the U.S. has is actually of questionable military value for the types of wars that are occurring and are likely to occur in the future. For example, while the U.S. has been making military use of a few aircraft carriers in recent decades, most of them have been kept in service for a war that may never happen—and if it does happen, they are likely to be soon sunk by advanced weaponry already in the hands of potential enemies like China and Russia. For China to actually “catch up” militarily to the U.S. it simply does not need 10 aircraft carriers!

Third, most discussion of “China catching up militarily to the U.S.” is focused on the scenario of a future interimperialist war between the U.S. and China. While such an all-out nuclear war could indeed happen eventually, for at least the next decade the more relevant question is how soon will China’s own military be able to start acting in a more direct and powerful way to support the Chinese imperialist exploitation of as much of the world as it can (and in the same way that the U.S. military does)? And that is not very long in the future at all! The Chinese military is very rapidly catching up to the U.S. military with respect to the ability to protect its overseas investments and to bully other less developed countries.

However, China—like the U.S.—will inevitably find that militarily pacifying the world to facilitate its own imperialist economic exploitation of it is not so easy to do! There will be resistance to, and rebellions against, neocolonial regimes that China is attempting to prop up just as there has always been such resistance and rebellions against the regimes the U.S. and other imperialist powers have established and sought to protect. China, even as it succeeds in building an imperialist expeditionary power to patrol the world, will also inevitably get bogged down in imperialist wars in the same way that the U.S. has been in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

[1] Geoff Dyer, The Contest of the Century (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 10. Dyer is the former bureau chief in Beijing for the Financial Times newspaper (London).

[2] Data in this chart is from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and their spreadsheet of military expenditures for 172 different countries which is available online at: http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/milex_database/milex_database The percentage figures have been calculated by us from that data.

[3] “Defence Spending: Squeezing the Pentagon”, the Economist, issue of July 6, 2013, online at: http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21580460-wrong-way-cut-americas-military-budget-squeezing-pentagon Certainly it is possible that these particular “sequestration” cuts may still be reversed, at least in part. But this situation still shows the mounting pressures on the U.S. to trim its military spending, rather than try to match the constant increases in Chinese military spending.

[4] Nick Simeone, “Hagel outlines budget reducing troop strength, force structure”, American Forces Press Service (of the U.S. Dept. of Defense), Feb. 24, 2014, online at: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=121703

[5] Maggie Ybarra, “Pentagon budget priorities continue trend of decreased funding for NATO: Decline in U.S. spending fits with European trend”, Washington Times, Feb. 26, 2014, online at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/feb/26/pentagon-budget-cuts-wont-bode-well-nato/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS (Accessed Feb. 26, 2014).

[6] Source: http://www.globalfirepower.com

[7] For information about the DF-41 ICBM, see “Five Types of Missiles to Debut on National Day”, Xinhua News, Sept. 2, 2009, online at: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-09/02/content_11982723.htm See also “Intercontinental Ballistic Missile” entry on Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ICBM

[8] “Work under way on China’s second aircraft carrier at Dalian yard”, South China Morning Post, Jan. 19, 2014, online at: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1408728/work-under-way-chinas-second-aircraft-carrier-dalian-yard

[9] “The U.S. Navy’s huge, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers — capital ships that have long dominated military planning and budgeting — are slowly becoming obsolete, weighed down by escalating costs, inefficiency and vulnerability to the latest enemy weapons.” —David Axe, “After the Aircraft Carrier: 3 Alternatives to the Navy’s Vulnerable Flattops”, Wired, March 20, 2013, online at: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/?p=105583

[10] “Weaponry and espionage: A shot from the dark”, Economist, Nov. 30, 2013, p. 58. Online at: http://www.economist.com/news/international/21590960-formidable-munitions-become-easier-conceal-and-use-west-intensifying-efforts

[11] Ibid. This rocket-torpedo is manufactured by a Russian-owned company in Kyrgyzstan, and is known to be exported to other countries.

[12] There has been a recent boom in the construction of aircraft carriers by both imperialist and sub-imperialist countries. In an article about the launching of a new Japanese carrier named the Izumo (officially called a “destroyer”, since Japan’s constitution does not allow offensive warships), the Economist states that China is building “at least 2 more” carriers of a design similar to the one they already have. See the article “Wide-mouthed frog”, Economist, Aug. 10, 2013, p. 35. India also recently launched the first of 2 carriers it has been building, as noted in the news brief “Carrier nation”, San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 13, 2013, p. A-2.

[13] Jason Koebler, “Report: Chinese Drone ‘Swarms’ Designed to Attack American Aircraft Carriers: The Chinese are taking unmanned aerial vehicle development very seriously, according to a new report”, U.S. News & World Report,March 14, 2013, online at:http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/03/14/report-chinese-drone-swarms-designed-to-attack-american-aircraft-carriers

[14] Edward Wong, “Hacking U.S. Secrets, China Pushes for Drones”, New York Times, Sept. 20, 2013, online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/21/world/asia/hacking-us-secrets-china-pushes-for-drones.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130921

[15] Map from Jan Van Tol, et al., “AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept”, published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010, p. 14. The CSBA is an American ruling class think tank concerned with military issues and “focusing on matters of strategy, security policy and resource allocation”.

[16] Various sources for the information in this paragraph, including the Wikipedia article on the PLA Navy at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Navy

[17] See for example Christopher Bodeen, “Inside ‘Unit 61398’: Portrait of Accused Chinese Cyberspying Group Emerges”, Huffington Post, Feb. 20, 2013, online at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/20/inside-unit-61398_n_2722356.html

[18] “Three astronauts are blasted into space as China launches mission to orbit the Earth from a remote site in the Gobi desert”, Daily Mail [U.K.], June 11, 2013, online at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2339641/Three-astronauts-blasted-space-China-launches-mission-orbit-Earth-remote-site-Gobi-desert.html#ixzz2VvTfx1W7

[19] Ibid.

[20] “China: Power and patriotism: Reaching for the Moon”, Economist, Dec. 21, 2013, p. 68.

[21] “China: Moon rover captivates many lunar scientists”, L. A. Times report reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 9, 2014, p. A3.

[22] That is, depending upon whether the U.S. and other countries have the political willingness (and the financial necessity because of the economic crisis) to allow China to beat them to Mars.

The head of the China National Space Administration, Sun Laiyan, said in 2006 that China would soon be starting deep space exploration focusing on Mars, and that a Chinese unmanned probe to Mars might occur as soon as 2014. A crewed mission to Mars is also planned, but for quite some time later. [See the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manned_mission_to_Mars ]

[23] See Wikipedia entry for “List of U.S. Military Bases” at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_military_bases and “The Worldwide Network of US Military Bases”, Global Research, at: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-worldwide-network-of-us-military-bases/5564

[24] See the entry for “Military Keynesianism” in the Dictionary of Revolutionary Marxism.



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