In a single generation, China has transformed itself from a largely agrarian country into a global manufacturing and trading powerhouse. China’s economy is 20 times bigger than it was two decades ago and is on track to surpass the United States’ as the world’s largest. But perhaps most startling has been the growth of China’s ambitious and increasingly powerful military.
Just 10 years ago, the budget for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was roughly $20 billion. Today, that number is more like $100 billion. (Some analysts think it’s closer to $160 billion.) The PLA’s budget is only a sixth of what the U.S. devotes to defense annually, but defense dollars go much further in China, and in the years ahead, Chinese military spending will grow at the same rate as its economy. Meanwhile, Chinese president Hu Jintao has called for the PLA to carry out “new historic missions” in the 21st century—to move beyond the traditional goal of defending the nation’s sovereignty and develop the global military reach of a true world superpower. In some cases, China’s increasing international presence could lead to greater cooperation with the U.S., as it did in 2008 when China joined antipiracy patrols off Somalia. But if American and Chinese forces end up in the same place with different goals, the result could be a standoff between two of the best-equipped militaries in the world.