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美中军事 记分卡: 军队、地理 和持续演变的力量平衡 1996-2017年, 内容摘要

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Research Questions

  1. What has been the trajectory of Chinese military capability development from 1996 to the present, and what will China's military force look like by the year 2017?
  2. To what extent have China's military capabilities kept pace with those of the United States? Is it likely that China is "closing in" on U.S. naval, air, missile, space, cyber, and nuclear capabilities?
  3. In which strategic areas is China likely to pose the greatest challenge to the United States in conflicts over Taiwan and the Spratly Islands?
  4. What strategic decisions would the United States have needed to make — in terms of basing, mobilization of forces, force protection, or capability acquisition — to prevail in conflict scenarios with China over time?

Over the past two decades, China's People's Liberation Army has transformed itself from a large but antiquated force into a capable, modern military. Its technology and operational proficiency still lag behind those of the United States, but it has rapidly narrowed the gap. Moreover, China enjoys the advantage of proximity in most plausible conflict scenarios, and geographical advantage would likely neutralize many U.S. military strengths. A sound understanding of regional military issues — including forces, geography, and the evolving balance of power — will be essential for establishing appropriate U.S. political and military policies in Asia. This RAND study analyzes the development of respective Chinese and U.S. military capabilities in ten categories of military operations across two scenarios, one centered on Taiwan and one on the Spratly Islands. The analysis is presented in ten scorecards that assess military capabilities as they have evolved over four snapshot years: 1996, 2003, 2010, and 2017. The results show that China is not close to catching up to the United States in terms of aggregate capabilities, but also that it does not need to catch up to challenge the United States on its immediate periphery. Furthermore, although China's ability to project power to more distant locations remains limited, its reach is growing, and in the future U.S. military dominance is likely to be challenged at greater distances from China's coast. To maintain robust defense and deterrence capabilities in an era of fiscal constraints, the United States will need to ensure that its own operational concepts, procurement, and diplomacy anticipate future developments in Chinese military capabilities.

Key Findings

Although China's Capabilities Fall Behind Those of the United States, It Is Now Able to Pose Significant Challenges to U.S. Operations

  • China has made tremendous strides in its military capabilities since 1996. It is not close to catching up to the U.S. military in terms of aggregate capabilities, but it does not need to catch up to challenge the United States on its immediate periphery.
  • Despite U.S. military improvements, China has made relative gains in most operational areas, in some cases with startling speed. However, trends vary by mission area, and even in the context of difficult scenarios, U.S. forces retain some important advantages.

Distance and Geography Have Major Impacts on Both Sides' Ability to Achieve Their Critical Objectives

  • In general, these factors work against the United States and largely counterbalance U.S. military strengths, especially in scenarios around China's immediate periphery.
  • China's ability to project power to more distant locations remains weak, and the United States continues to hold more decisive advantage in Asian scenarios at a distance from China's coast.
  • However, China's ability to project power is improving, and the relative balance in areas more distant from China is also shifting.


  • U.S. military leaders should ensure that U.S. planning for Pacific military operations is as dynamic as possible. The U.S. military should adopt operational concepts and strategies that capitalize on potential advantages and utilize the geographic size and depth of the theater, as well as areas of particular U.S. military strength.
  • Specifically, the U.S. military should consider employing an active denial strategy that would improve the resiliency of the force and diminish its vulnerability to preemptive attack. Forces would be more dispersed at the outset of conflict, with many deployed at greater distances from China, but with the ability to move forward as Chinese missile inventories are exhausted or reduced through attrition.
  • Military procurement priorities should be adjusted, emphasizing base redundancy and survivability; standoff systems optimized for high-intensity conflict; stealthy, survivable fighters and bombers; submarine and anti-submarine warfare; and robust space and counterspace capabilities. To save money, U.S. decisionmakers should consider more rapid cuts to legacy fighter forces and a decreased emphasis on large aircraft carriers.
  • Political and military leaders should intensify diplomatic efforts in the Pacific and Southeast Asia with the goal of expanding potential U.S. access in wartime. This will provide greater strategic depth and more options for U.S. forces.
  • Western governments and commentators should make it clear to China that aggression would carry immense risks and that China should be cautious not to exaggerate its ability to prevail in armed conflict. They should also engage China on issues of strategic stability and escalation.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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