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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?
China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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4.3 Troops and missiles

Although overall military spending is one way of measuring military capabilities, the composition of the armed forces is also important. Table 3 below is an estimation of the relative military capabilities of China and the United States.

Table 3 Military assets, 2011
Defence budget 2010-11, $bn89.8739.3
Share of GDP, %1.3*4.9
Active personnel, m2.31.6
Strategic and long-range assets
Intercontinental ballistic missile launchers66450
Nuclear-powered submarines w/ ballistic missiles314
Modern main battle tanks28006302
Armoured infantry fighting vehicles23906452
4th generation tactical aircraft7473092
Attack helicopters16862
Heavy/medium transport helicopters2942809
Power projection
Aircraft carriers011
Nuclear-powered submarines557
Principal amphibious ships129
Heavy/medium transport aircraft57847
Tanker aircraft13550
Heavy unmanned aerial vehiclesn/a370
Imagery satellites1510
Intelligence satellites1120
Navigational satellites1031
(The Economist, 2011)


*Official figure; excludes some military spending


**Combat units and formations capable of manoeuvring


‡Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance


†Airborne warning and control system

Activity 6

Timing: About 10 minutes

Study Table 3, and then make some notes in the box below on the following questions.

  1. What overall picture does this convey?
  2. Are there any areas where China is in the lead? What kind of ‘threat’ might these areas of leadership pose?
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  1. Overall, the United States maintains a considerable lead over China in most categories.
  2. The notable exception where China enjoys a lead is in the size of the armed forces where, on this 2009 estimate, China has 2.3 million active personnel compared to the United States' 1.6 million. However, such a force cannot pose much of a direct threat to the United States as the mobility of those forces is severely restricted. The ability to project force is therefore a crucial issue in estimating any perceived threat from China to US allies in the region, or the United States' ability to threaten mainland China. In direct relations between the two, the United States maintains a superior ability to inflict harm on China than China does on the United States. But in regional terms, China can project its force towards key US allies and this capability will increase if naval, air and missile power is increased.