Updated Report: Chinese Strategy and Military Forces in 2021

There is no simple way to introduce the challenges that China’s strategic presence and growing civil and military capabilities pose in competing with the United States. China’s capability to compete at given levels has increased radically since 1980 in virtually every civil and military area, and China has set broad goals for achieving strategic parity and superiority, although the timeframes for such goals are vague – and neither China nor the United States has published anything like a credible unclassified net assessment of current and future capabilities or provided details as to how each country’s broad statements about strategic goals would actually be implemented.

The Burke Chair is now presenting a regularly updated summary briefing on key developments in Chinese capabilities to compete with the United States and other powers. This briefing is supported by a wide range of graphs, maps, and tables that provide a diverse view of the summary data on a wide range of China’s strategic and military capabilities where these can be summarized in quantitative form or by using maps and selected quotes. It has added summary comparisons of China and the U.S. where possible, recognizing that the estimates are often different and controversial.

One key goal in developing this briefing is to illustrate the complexity of the various forms of competition, and the fact that the competition is both civil and military, is global rather than centered in one area like Taiwan or the South China Sea, and is often a competition for military and civil influence that goes far beyond Asia – and where each nation’s ability to influence and deter may well be more important than its ability to fight.

Another goal is to illustrate the sheer complexity of the competition and its many different dimensions, as well as the rapid rate of change in many key areas of military force, economics, and politics – rates of change where it is clear that experts are forced to speculate as to how each side will progress over periods of at least the next two decades to understand these vectors of change.

The briefing draws heavily on official sources, and it should be noted that the data provided often do not agree in detail – even if they are generated by the same source. It relies, where possible, on the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report on Chinese Military Power for 2020, ( https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF ), which seems to be the most reliable and balanced official unclassified source available.

The briefing also includes reporting by the Congressional Research Service, U.S. combatant commands, Japanese and South Korean official reporting, and a wide range of other think tank and expert sources in an effort to deliberately illustrate the wide range of different official and expert estimates. These data again often differ in detail, and the original source must be carefully consulted to fully understand the figures involved .

The reader should also be aware that many of the summary graphics and data drawn from official sources and the work of other experts and think tanks can only highlight given aspects of competition, and they have to be taken in context. The sources of each page are shown in detail and again illustrate the complexity of competition and the need to both examine its full spectrum, as well as the details of each key area of particular interest.

Five key cautions need to be kept in mind in interpreting these estimates and data.

  • First, China emphasizes the integrated use of political, economic, and military power, and it is using such assets to achieve its goals without warfighting with major powers like the United States. The U.S. and Western states have increasingly attempted to respond using measures like sanctions, but they do not have political and economic systems that allow the state to directly integrate such operations, and much of the U.S. and Western analytic effort focuses separately on military dynamics and warfighting compared to civil and economic competition. This analysis too focuses on military trends, although some broad data on civil, economic, and technology competition are included.

  • Second, the nature of warfare is changing rapidly both in terms of irregular warfare and in every aspect of major conflict. Cyber conflict, space, joint all-domain operations, precision conventional strike, use of artificial intelligence, and use of third-party state and non-state actors are only a few of the changes involved. These do not lend themselves easily to the broad force and trend data used in this analysis, but they have already sharply shaped the ability to influence, intimidate, deter, and actually fight, and China’s comparative success in these areas – many of which are cutting edge aspects of civil technology and manufacturing – may dominate the future of military competition over the coming decades in ways that no one can now credibly predict and assess.

  • Third, this analysis reflects the fact that the U.S. has heavily emphasized competition in the Pacific, and particularly in the South China Sea, dealing with Taiwan and involving China’s growing pressure on South Korea, Japan, and in the Indian Ocean region. The data in this analysis show that focus is all too justified given the growth of Chinese military power in each region. So far, however, this focus has led the U.S. to understate the importance of China’s ability to use its economic power on a global basis to conduct the equivalent of gray and white area warfare, its growing capability to put pressure on Central Asian and Indian Ocean states, its growing links to Russia, and its role as a truly global power where its economic strength may compensate for its current lack of military power projection capability. The U.S. has so far focused on improving its capability to fight a major war against China – improvements that are necessary but no substitute for effective civil-military competition on a global basis.

  • Fourth, it is still too early to predict exactly how China will improve its nuclear and dual nuclear/conventional warfighting forces and defenses over time. It now seems likely that China will develop a far more advanced capability for mutual assured destruction and focus on conventional wars at low theater levels. China’s emergence as a direct rival to the United States and as a far more powerful military and economic power than Russia, not only is redefining the nuclear balance, but it is creating a world in which the risk of nuclear escalation between the major power must be evaluated in terms of three states, rather than two – and with the risk that new forms of warfare will further complicate the challenges for deterrence, warfighting, defense, and arms control. There is an important difference between “mutual assured destruction” and “mutual assured confusion and uncertainty.”

  • Fifth, international statistics always present major challenges in comparability, but these problems are generally far greater when they involve radically different political, military, and economic systems. Many of the data in this brief are also are derived from classified sources and are rounded or adjusted to provide an accurate picture of broad trends, but they are not the exact data from a given source or methodology – which often are not described in the original source. Given sources of data and experts often disagree or focus on different metrics, time periods, and method of comparison. There are also a number of areas where current unclassified estimates are lacking or do not seem credible.



This report entitled, Chinese Strategy and Military Forces in 2021, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/210607_Cordesman_Chinese_Strategy.pdf?fG7hUZdWUVJgaJzyC4E9Qj1m3w13SfjQ .

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Grace Hwang