Sep 14, 2015
A RAND study analyzed Chinese and U.S. military capabilities in two scenarios (Taiwan and the Spratly Islands) from 1996 to 2017, finding that trends in most, but not all, areas run strongly against the United States. While U.S. aggregate power remains greater than China's, distance and geography affect outcomes. China is capable of challenging U.S. military dominance on its immediate periphery — and its reach is likely to grow in the years ahead.
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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.
Different Paths: Chinese and U.S. Military Development, 1996–2017
Scorecard 1: Chinese Capability to Attack Air Bases
Scorecard 2: Air Campaigns Over Taiwan and the Spratly Islands
Scorecard 3: U.S. Penetration of Chinese Airspace
Scorecard 4: U.S. Capability to Attack Chinese Air Bases
Scorecard 5: Chinese Anti-Surface Warfare
Scorecard 6: U.S. Anti-Surface Warfare Capabilities Versus Chinese Naval Ships
Scorecard 7: U.S. Counterspace Capabilities Versus Chinese Space Systems
Scorecard 8: Chinese Counterspace Capabilities Versus U.S. Space Systems
Scorecard 9: U.S. and Chinese Cyberwarfare Capabilities
Scorecard 10: U.S. and Chinese Strategic Nuclear Stability
The Receding Frontier of U.S. Dominance
Implications and Recommendations