China’s Military Capabilities: From Past Suboptimality to Present-Day Strenght and Future Potential


As a bit of a historical perspective, we would recommend reading our article on China’s military sector before analyzing this one. If possible, it would perhaps be a good idea to also read our article about NATO’s more than complex relationship with China and after reading both, the following conclusion will inevitable emerge: the idea that “China is an economic superpower, but hardly a military one” is becoming a myth.

For an extended period of time, the previous statement did make sense. As of the rule of Jiang Zemin, China’s military sector was plagued by widespread corruption and, indeed, it is still an ongoing issue despite Xi Jinping showing determination to tackle this issue decisively. However, leaving the fact aside that progress is being made, we need to understand that China’s economic growth inevitably led to military benefits.

Think of it as the opposite of Russia’s situation. In other words, when it comes to Russia, while it is indeed sitting on an impressive stockpile of weapons (most notably enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the world multiple times over, much like the United States), its sub-optimal economic growth inevitably led to “bleeding” as far as its military was concerned, with formerly-impressive Cold War weapons (in)famously turning into piles of rust and similar examples abounding. As such, leaving more or less belligerent rhetoric aside, it has become clear to NATO as well as pretty much all other military players that China is currently the #2 game in town when it comes to military potential.

Why? For primarily economics-related reasons, such as:

  1. The fact that along with its GDP growth came an increased ability to spend its way toward influence, through projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the AIIB and many more… projects that, in most cases, also provide China with a more than believable “context” for protecting its investment through, of course, a military presence
  2. Even if military spending as a percentage of China’s GDP isn’t exactly at historic highs, even a small(er) percentage of an impressive Gross Domestic Product adds up. Gradual investments enabled China to become the world’s #1 entity when it comes to total artillery, the #2 entity when it comes to aircraft fighters, aircraft attack, self-propelled artillery, combat tanks and armored fighting vehicles as well as the #3 entity when it comes to total aircraft strength, total helicopter strength, attack helicopters and rocket projectors
  3. China’s trademark-worthy infrastructure investments ultimately come with military advantages as well. For example its 16 major ports, almost 4 million km of roadway coverage, 86,000 km of railway coverage, over 500 airports and so on
  4. Its long-term perspective when it comes to approaches which try to combine civil projects with military endeavors, for example the Civil-Military Integration (or CMI) initiative, which revolves around infrastructure modernization, hardware modernization, personnel training and so on… another example when it comes to China’s long-term perspective are represented by initiatives such as the “Made in China 2025” one and the list could go on and on
  5. The fact that, despite not necessarily being the most profitable approach, China has cornered key industries such as rare earths and, from many perspective, many Western industries including defense can be considered vulnerable due to their over(dependence) on Chinese rare earths
  6. China’s increased determination to become less reliant on Western know-how and more capable of creating high-end internal research & development-generated products… both civilian and military ones
  7. The tremendous progress China has made with respect to hybrid warfare, including but not limited to the ability to both launch and defend itself against cyber attacks… this, coupled with a well-orchestrated diplomatic and PR approach (some would call it propaganda, including… ironically, Edward Bernays, the “father” of Public Relations) makes China a force to be reckoned with in the digital age
  8. The increased spending China has been willing to commit to so as to (from its perspective, of course, opinions vary wildly) protect its interests in key geopolitical regions such as the South China Sea. It becomes obvious that China’s “soft power” approach has its limits and key nearby geopolitical “hot spots” most definitely represent an exception to that rule

… the list could go on and on.

While a few years ago, this topic would have been considered controversial, with many quick to dismiss the “true” military capability potential of China and highlight just how much catching up it still has to do… let’s just say things no longer stand that way in the present. Even the most die-hard China skeptics have come to terms with the fact that times have indeed changed, with China being on the receiving end of those changes.

It has become quasi-unanimously accepted that China now represents the #2 contender when it comes to military potential as well rather than just economic potential. While NATO still dwarfs China in terms of military spending and capabilities (however, it is noteworthy that the United States accounts for over two thirds of NATO military spending, so a case can be made that the “who carries the burden?” status quo is less than sustainable), time seem to be on China’s side and unless a “paradigm shift” situation emerges, the trend most definitely seems to be China’s friend from a military perspective as well.