top of page

Countering China’s Future Military Ambitions


Disclaimer: In this article, “China” refers to the country’s political leadership and the collective will of this leadership. It is not intended to reference the sentiment of the Chinese people that inhabit the nation.

The Rising Challenge

It should come as no surprise to those in the United States that China has some ambitious goals for the coming decades, but perhaps what is less known by Americans is what China seeks to achieve and the rate at which the country is determined to achieve it. China’s economic achievements and its increasing presence on the global stage are shifting the balance of power in this current era of great power competition. While China’s ascension seems all but certain, what remains to be seen is how the United States will respond to meet this challenge. To understand how the U.S. could weather the storm, one must first understand China’s ambitions.

China’s Military Ambitions

For its role as the de facto world leader, the United States faces many adversaries that seek to oppose the status quo of post-Cold War democratic governance. Those adversaries include Russia, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. China, however, represents a far less direct yet also far more pre- carious opponent in the long term. China is revealing itself as the greatest opponent of U.S. hegemonic power, ultimately seeking to revise the world order.(1) There are two critical milestones that Chinese President Xi Jinping has set in order to achieve this goal: 1) complete military modernization by 2035, and 2) full reunification by 2049. To achieve the former, the Chinese government is striving to make its military stronger, more efficient and more technologically advanced. The latter includes the reabsorption of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. China’s military modernization efforts are, in part, intended to ensure the success of its reunification efforts.

China’s substantial investment in its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), reveals that China seeks not just to match U.S. military power, but also to surpass it. According to the United States Department of Defense (DoD), China’s military has already surpassed the American military in three categories: shipbuilding, production of land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles and integrated air defense systems.(2) The DoD also reports that China possesses the largest navy and standing ground forces in the world, supported by the world’s third-largest military aviation forces.(3) The United States military, however, still leads the PLA in a multitude of other categories, including its substantial nuclear arsenal and air superiority.

China’s Geopolitical Approach

China’s track records over the past 40 years indicate that it aims to avoid costly conflicts. However, this does not mean that China is unwilling to use its armed forces to advance its foreign policy objectives. In fact, evidence shows that China is already using the PLA to support its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) via overseas bases.(4) One such base was established in Djibouti, which provides the PLA with influence over the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, both key waterways for global trade. It is very likely that China will continue to establish a network of strategic military bases that safeguard its economic investments around the world.

Starting with geopolitical interests closer to home, China has already taken a more active military role in patrolling the waters off its eastern and southern shores and is now a dominant force in the Asia Pacific. This increased activity has elevated tensions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. China’s disregard for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and subsequent adherence to the “nine-dash line” as a legal determinant of territorial waters creates a scenario ripe for conflict.(5) Neighboring countries Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines are now requesting

U.S. help to deter a growing Chinese naval presence in these waters.

Another critical factor placing China in direct opposition to the United States is its alliance with Russia, the traditional adversary to the U.S. and its NATO allies. China has declared a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” with Russia, which includes cooperation in training, equipment and technology.(6) China regularly participates in joint military exercises with Russia, with one exercise conducted as recently as September 2020.(7)

While China may not yet have the ambition to maintain the same global military presence as the United States, China will nonetheless use its growing military as a means to protect its economic investments abroad, and these investments are becoming increasingly widespread.

China’s New Military Capabilities

China proposed a defense budget of $178.2 billion for 2020, a 6.6% increase from the previous year.(8) Although this figure represents a relatively limited increase in spending compared to previous years, it demonstrates that China is committed to the progression of its military despite the economic slow-down caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), it is likely that China’s actual military spending will extend well beyond the nearly $180 billion budgeted.(9) As of 2020, China possesses the world’s second-largest defense budget, second only to that of the United States. China’s lack of transparency makes it difficult to decipher exactly how China chooses to spend its defense budget, though some details have been reported.

For much of its history, the PLA has relied on purchasing foreign military equipment, especially from Russia. One example of this is China’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 and S-300 surface-to-air missile defense systems. In recent decades, however, the Chinese government has invested heavily in state-owned and private-sector defense companies and is estimated to now be the world’s second-largest weapons manufacturer behind the United States.(10) Driven by the goal of reaching military modernization by 2035, China’s substantial military investments have funded a multitude of developments to its ground, naval, air, missile, nuclear and cyber capabilities. Some noteworthy new advancements in the PLA’s military tech include the versatile and mobile Type 15 tank, the Chengdu J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter jet and the Type 052D Luyang III-class Destroyer.

While China maintains the largest standing army in the world, reports indicate that China’s army has actually reduced in size to 975,000 troops, in favor of creating smaller, more agile units.(11) China is forming a new amphibious expeditionary force akin to the U.S. Marine Corps. This new force is estimated to have between 25,000 and 35,000 troops organized into seven brigades, each with armor, artillery and missiles.(12) To escort these units, China can utilize new amphibious assault ships, such as Type 075 ships, which each hold 900 troops and up to 30 helicopters.(13) China’s rapid development of a new arsenal of naval vessels will add to what is already the largest naval force in the world, reportedly consisting of around 350 ships and submarines now.(14) By 2022, China is expected to possess nearly 60 nuclear submarines and its third aircraft carrier.(15) President Xi Jinping has given special instruction to transform the PLA into a major naval power that will dominate the Asia Pacific and conduct operations at greater distances.

Also worth noting are the developments within China’s Rocket Force, the branch responsible for maintaining the country’s conventional and nuclear missiles. China is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and anti-ship ballistic missiles. China reportedly possesses over 1,200 ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, along with 290 nuclear warheads.(16) Unconstrained by international arms control agreements in which the U.S. is a party, such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, China’s missile stockpile is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. Moreover, China is ahead of the U.S. in developing hypersonic missiles, a new type of missile that incorporates the speed of a ballistic missile with the maneuvering capabilities of a cruise missile.(17)

China’s Strategic Support Force, which focuses on electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, psychological operations and other high-tech missions, is accelerating the development of military intelligence, with a focus on emerging technologies and artificial intelligence.(18) China’s Air Force is also enhancing its high-tech equipment, upgrading its airborne warning and controls systems (AWACS), bombers and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).(19)

How Can the U.S. Meet This Challenge?

While China’s rise has been swift and salient, the United States can almost certainly meet this challenge to its global authority. The question is how, not if, the U.S. will choose to meet such a challenge. With roughly 800 military bases in over 70 countries and territories and a defense spending budget of roughly $740 billion,(20) the United States has the capacity to match China’s military progression. However, the greatest means by which the United States could counter China is not its military funding, but rather, its leveraging of global partnerships. The U.S. has many strategic partnerships, such as its alliance with Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan and the Philippines. All of these countries are close in geographic proximity to China, meaning they can aid the U.S. in deterring China’s military ambitions. The United States is, of course, also part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a critical alliance with which the U.S. can deter the military action of its opponents. Ultimately, the United States has many global partnerships, while China has relatively few. Although China is looking to quickly remedy this issue, leveraging strategic alliances remains the key tool with which the U.S. can counter China’s military ambitions.

Also critical is investment in research and development of technologies that will alter the future of warfare, such as cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and hypersonic missiles. Without investment in research and development in these areas, the U.S. risks falling behind its adversaries.

Although it appears that the United States and China are on a collision course and some conflict between these great powers seems inevitable at times, there is still hope that diplomacy, deterrence or, most likely, elements of both will keep such a conflict from occurring. If there is one certainty that all parties can agree to, it’s that both the U.S. and China have a lot more to gain from cooperation than from conflict.

[1] “New world order: Xi bent on securing bigger role for China in global affairs, analysts say,” South China Morning Post, accessed November 1, 2020, set-securing-new-role-china-world-affairs-analysts.

[2] Joscelyn, Thomas, “China’s Military Has Global Ambitions,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, published September 2, 2020, accessed October 20, 2020,


[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wang, Zheng, “China and UNCLOS: An Inconvenient History,” The Diplomat, published July 11, 2016, accessed October 20, 2020, https://thediplo-

[6] Joscelyn, Thomas, “China’s Military Has Global Ambitions,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, published September 2, 2020, accessed October 20, 2020,


[7] “China, others to join military exercises in Russia,” The Washington Post, published September 9, 2020, accessed October 18, 2020, https://www.wash- story.html.

[8] Yeo, Mike, “China announces $178.2 billion military budget,” Defense News, published May 22, 2020, accessed October 20, 2020, https://www. lion-military-budget/.

[9] Glaser, Bonnie S., Funaiole, Matthew P., and Hart, Brian, “Breaking Down China’s 2020 Defense Budget,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, published May 22, 2020, accessed October 19, 2020, analysis/breaking-down-chinas-2020-defense-budget#:~:text=Chinese%20 officials%20revealed%20on%20Friday,7.2%20percent%20and%208.1%20per- cent..

[10] “New SIPRI data reveals scale of Chinese arms industry,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, published January 27, 2020, accessed October 20, 2020, pri-data-reveals-scale-chinese-arms-industry.

[11] Maizland, Lindsay, “China’s Modernizing Military,” Council on Foreign Relations, published February 5, 2020, accessed October 18, 2020, https://

[12] Lague, David, “China expands its amphibious forces in challenge to U.S. supremacy beyond Asia,” Reuters, published July 20, 2020, accessed October 4, 2020, tary-amphibious/.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Sonne, Paul, “China is ramping up nuclear and missile forces to rival U.S., Pentagon says,” The Washington Post, published September 1, 2020, accessed September 30, 2020, al-security/china-is-ramping-up-nuclear-and-missile-forces-to-rival-us- pentagon-says/2020/09/01/00c4dca4-ec95-11ea-a21a-0fbbe90cfd8c_story. html?utm_source=dailybrief&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily-


[15] Maizland, Lindsay, “China’s Modernizing Military,” Council on Foreign Relations, published February 5, 2020, accessed October 18, 2020, https://

[16] Kristensen, Hans M., and Korda, Matt, “Chinese nuclear forces, 2019,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published June 28, 2019, accessed October 18, 2020, 511?needAccess=true.

[17] “Hypersonic Weapon Basics,” Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, last updated May 30, 2018, accessed October 21, 2020, https://missiledefensead- siles/.

[18] Kim, Patricia, “Understanding China’s Military Expansion,” Pacific Council on International Policy, accessed October 15, 2020, https://www.

[19] Maizland, Lindsay, “China’s Modernizing Military,” Council on Foreign Relations, published February 5, 2020, accessed October 18, 2020, https://

[20] “DOD Releases Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Proposal,” U.S. Department of Defense, published February 20, 2020, accessed November 1, 2020, https://



DAVID HUTCHINS is a defense and security analyst specializing in geopolitical conflict. He has held prior positions in intelligence gathering and international relations. He earned his MSc in Defense, Development, and Diplomacy from Durham University in the United Kingdom and his BA in Political Science and International Studies from Iowa State University. David also served for six years in the U.S. Marine Corps infantry.


bottom of page