- Amid rising tensions with the US, China is continuing its drive to build a modern fighting force by 2027.
- The US military still ahead in several important areas, but the Chinese military has its own advantages.
- Here’s how those forces stack up in total manpower, military expenditure, and land, sea and air capabilities.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
China is pushing ahead with plans to turn the People’s Liberation Army into a modern fighting force by 2027 — the centenary of its founding — as tensions with the US build.
One senior US commander has called China “the pacing threat for the next decade“and Washington is ramping up support for Taiwan as the island faces growing political and military pressure from Beijing.
Meanwhile analysts have warned that the South China Sea could be the tipping point for a military conflict between the two.
Read on to see whether the US or China’s military is stronger in areas such as total manpower, military expenditure and land, sea and air capabilities.
Military expenditure: US
The US is by far the world’s biggest spender, with a budget estimated at US$778 billion last year, accounting for 39% of total global military expenditure, according to data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
China was a distant second with an estimated expenditure of US$252 billion.
However, US analysts warned that Washington must keep pace with Beijing on military spending, after China announced a 6.8% increase in defence funding this year following more than two decades of steady increases.
Total manpower: China
China has by far the world’s largest military, with 2 million active personnel in 2019, according to the latest defence white paper.
The Pentagon’s budget request for the next financial year says there are around 1.35 million active US military personnel and 800,000 in its reserve.
However, technology and equipment are more important than weight of numbers in modern warfare and both countries are reducing the emphasis on manpower.
President Xi Jinping pledged in 2015 to cut the PLA’s number of personnel by 300,000 troops, while US President Joe Biden‘s budget plan for the upcoming financial year also included cuts of about 5,400 to the American military’s headcount.
Ground force: US
The PLA’s land army is the world’s largest standing ground force with 915,000 active-duty troops, almost twice the US figure of 486,000 personnel, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power Report.
But the PLA’s ground forces are either using obsolete equipment or cannot effectively field modern weapons without better equipment or training, according to the report.
China has been adopting lighter and more powerful automated weapons for its ground forces, shifting much of the operational burden from physical grunt work to digital technology, but military experts say training has not kept up.
The United States, with its 6,333 tanks, has the second-largest armour holdings in the world after Russia, while China is third with 5,800 tanks, according to Forbes.
Air power: US
America maintains its edge with more than 13,000 military aircraft, 5,163 of which are operated by the US Air Force. Its forces include the F-35 Lightning and F-22 Raptor, which are among the most advanced combat jets in the world, according to the 2021 World Air Forces Report published by Flight Global.
Meanwhile, China’s aviation force — made up of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force — is the third-largest in the world with more than 2,500 aircraft, of which around 2,000 are combat aircraft, according to the 2020 China Military Power Report.
China’s most advanced stealth fighter jet is the independently developed J-20, also known as the Mighty Dragon. While designed to compete with the US F-22s, these have been using stopgap engines that limit their speed and combat abilities. But work on a high-thrust turbofan engine which could speed up mass production of the planes is ongoing.
The two countries are also working on new bombers, with China developing its Xian H-20 strategic bomber.
Meanwhile, the US Air Force released new images and details of its next-generation B-21 Raider stealth bomber on Friday.
Naval power: US
China now has the world’s largest navy, with about 360 ships compared with the US fleet of 297, according to a US Congressional report.
But China’s numerical advantage is down to smaller vessels, such as coastal patrol ships. When it comes to larger warships the United States has the advantage in numbers, technology and experience.
For example, the US has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which can cruise over greater distances than conventionally powered ones. The carriers are able to accommodate 60 or more aircraft each.
In comparison, China has just two carriers — the Liaoning and Shandong. Both are based on the Soviet-designed Kuznetsov-class carrier of the 1980s and are powered by conventional oil-fired boilers and carry 24 to 36 J-15 fighter jets.
However, China has an ambitious plan to equal US naval strength in the Pacific region, launching two dozen large warships — from corvettes and destroyers to huge amphibious landing docks — in 2019 alone. It plans to launch a third aircraft carrier equipped with the most advanced electromagnetic launch catapults and start work on a fourth this year.
Nuclear warheads: US
The US has the second-largest nuclear arsenal in the world after Russia, followed by France in third place and China fourth globally, according to the US-based World Population Review website.
China has not disclosed how many warheads it has, but the US Defence Department’s most recent report on the Chinese military stated that China’s warhead stockpile was “currently estimated to be in the low-200s,” while the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put the number at 350 this year.
A source close to the Chinese military told the South China Morning Post in January that its stockpile of nuclear warheads had risen to 1,000 over recent years, but fewer than 100 of them were active.
All of these estimates pale in comparison to the total US inventory of 5,800 nuclear warheads, of which 3,000 are available for deployment, with about 1,400 warheads already on alert delivery systems.
China may have the chance to close the nuclear gap after the United States and Russia agreed earlier this year to extend their New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to 2026. The treaty restricts both Washington and Moscow to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each.
While the US has far more nuclear warheads, China has a virtual monopoly in one area: ground-based ballistic missiles that can carry out both nuclear and conventional strikes.
The US was banned from deploying ground-based intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union, which it only withdrew from in August 2019.
Two weeks after it withdrew from the pact, the US launched a ground-based variant of a sea-launched cruise missile, followed four months later by its first intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs) since the 1980s. But China still has the upper hand over this class of missiles for now.
China’s only IRBM is the Dong Feng 26, which has been nicknamed the “Guam killer” because it is believed to be capable of conducting conventional strikes against the key US Air Force base on the island, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the number of IRBM launchers in China’s arsenal grew from zero in 2015 to 72 in 2020.