China: The Growing Military Challenge: Volume Two of a Graphic Net Assessment

There is no simple way to address the complex changes that China’s growing strategic presence and military capabilities pose in competing with the United States and other states. It is clear, however, that China’s capabilities to compete have increased radically in virtually every civil and military area since 1980, and that China has set broad goals for achieving strategic parity and superiority in the future – although its timeframes and definitions of such goals are vague.

The end result is that the United States adopted a new National Security Strategy in 2017 and a new National Defense Strategy in 2018 that both focused on China as an emerging peer threat to the U.S. and as a central focus of its strategy. Then Biden administration has not issued revised versions of these documents, but its FY2021 budget submission as well as the testimony of senior U.S. officials to Congress on U.S. strategy and force plans make it clear that China is now a central focus of the Biden administration’s national security planning efforts.

This report is the second half of an effort to provide an overview of these issues in the form of summary metrics and narratives. It is Volume Two of a two-part e-book that helps to explain these shifts in China’s strategic position and the reasons why major changes are needed in U.S. strategy. It is entitled, China: The Growing Military Challenge: Volume Two of a Graphic Net Assessment. A copy is attached to this email, and it can also be downloaded from the CSIS website at

Volume One, which is available on the CSIS website at, is entitled China: The Civil Military Challenges. It focuses on the civil-military dimensions of the changes in China’s capabilities and on the fact that China – unlike the U.S. and most other states – integrates its civil and military strategy and development plans. It shows how China’s civil development has greatly increased its capability to compete on a global level in both civil and military terms and to conduct what might be called “white area warfare”: China’s ability to achieve major strategic gains through purely civil means and without the use of force.

In contrast, Volume Two focuses on the trends in China’s military development. It draws on excerpts from official U.S. and strategic partner studies to provide a broad overview of China’s military strategy; defense policy; military organization and leadership; military spending; and impact on the military balance between U.S., Chinese, and Russian military forces.

It then addresses China’s strategic goals and military progress by region and country. It covers the overall trends in Asia; the balance between China and the U.S. in the Pacific, China and India, and China and the Middle East and Africa; China’s dependence on petroleum imports; China’s role in the South China Sea and Taiwan; China’s capabilities relative to Taiwan; China’s forces near the Koreas; China’s military pressure on Japan; and China’s growing ties to Russia.

The final section addresses China’s rapidly evolving military capabilities by military element: ground forces, naval, forces, air forces, nuclear and chemical and biological (CBW) forces, missile and precision strike forces, space capabilities, “intelligentized” and cyber warfare capabilities, and reserve and paramilitary forces.

It should be stressed that such an analysis can only flag the key trends in China’s growing civil-military capabilities to compete with the United States and other powers. At the same time, such an overview provides a warning against the tendency to focus on one aspect of China’s growing capabilities, a key aspect of China’s changing weapons and military technology, or a single region and scenario for warfighting. It also illustrates the fact that China focuses on military development to achieve its strategic goals without a major conflict and without the direct use of military force if possible. There is a tendency in some studies of China’s growing military capability to focus on a single aspect of China’s progress. Some wargames also focus on intensive levels of conflict without examining China’s strategic focus on avoiding such levels of warfare. 

Like Volume One, Volume Two provides a wide range of summary data on the trends in China’s development and future plans that show how China’s growing capabilities reflect the impact of an integrated civil-military strategy as well as political and economic efforts that go far beyond U.S. and allied efforts. Unlike the U.S. and most of its strategic partners – whose concepts of strategy focus on combat in Clausewitzian terms – China focuses on Sun Tzu’s emphasis on winning without fighting where possible, and “battles” where civil maneuvers and the use of military forces with limited or no combat produce a lasting form of victory.

Equally important, both Volume One and Volume Two show just how complex the trends in China’s evolving civil-military challenge are. They show how difficult it is to compare them with the trends in the U.S. and other states on a global level, how many different ways these trends can be estimated and compared, and how many conflicting views and uncertainties exist in virtually every key area.

Where possible, the graphics, maps, and trends in each Volume rely on official U.S. and Chinese reporting and on official reporting by international sources – including the UN, World Bank, and IMF. At the same time, they draw upon sources like the Congressional Research Service; official reporting by other countries like China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea; and work by RAND, other think tanks, and expert sources to illustrate the range of different official and expert estimates.

It should be stressed that the text in both Volumes does not represent the authors’ views. It instead highlights official U.S. unclassified reporting as of late 2021. It is designed to give the reader as clear of an unclassified picture as possible of how the U.S. government assesses developments in China. Most excerpts come from the narratives in the declassified U.S. studies and intelligence data provided in the Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021 that was issued in early November 2021.

This report is now issued by the U.S. Secretary of Defense as a report to Congress, but it began as an annual report on Chinese Military Power issued by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. It has evolved into a document that comes as close to an authoritative set of judgments by the U.S. intelligence community as an unclassified report can. It provides the user with exceptional insights into how the U.S. judged developments in China from sources with all of the resources and special access of the U.S. intelligence community.

The key areas addressed in Volume Two include:



Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Grace Hwang