The United States & China: An Arms Race

Author: Mason Drake

BRB Bottomline: National defense has been a significant priority of the U.S. throughout the past century where advanced technology has defined maritime strategy and a deterrence against a wide range of threats. The United States’ strategic arms race against China demonstrates how a diversified economy can lead to a formidable advantage in the event of war.

In an increasingly technological world, national defense is a primary concern for world powers. Nuclear weapons, the hypersonic missile, and maritime dominance are key advantages in the present and future of modern warfare. However, most notably, the backbone of national security lies within a resilient and diversified economy. Today, the United States is teetering on a strategic arms race with the world’s largest economy: China.

Naval Shipbuilding

In his article “Chinese shipbuilding capacity over 200 times greater than US, Navy intelligence says,” Michael Lee discusses a slide leak throughout the US Office of Naval Intelligence. The slide raises concerns about Chinese armed forces building navy vessels much faster than the United States. Senior research member Brent Sadler suggests that there won’t be any “near-term bending of the curve where we catch up with the Chinese.” 

On the leaked slide, researchers estimate that China has 23.3 million tons of ship capacity while the United States has less than 100,000 tons. In 2020, China had 355 ships including combatant, mine warfare, and major amphibious ships while the US had 296. 

All of this data can be attributed to China’s pervasive command economy. Because many countries, including the United States, rely on China for commercial shipping and cheap production, China has accumulated more buyers. With more buyers, China has greater demand, leading them to economic growth and high production. In the United States, builders only have the government as a buyer; therefore, the country has yet to create a profitable market space out of the commercial shipbuilding industry. 

Moreover, because China has a command economy, they produce for quantity, not quality in order to mass produce for many buyers. However, it’s not their interest rate that attracts buyers; it’s their population size and low labor taxes. Therefore, China will continue to produce armed vessels more efficiently than the United States. 

Finally, with such a large economy, the United States has become more reliant on profitable Chinese markets. Whether it’s holding cargo in China or purchasing masks during the pandemic, China’s economy has become valuable to America. As a result, in the event of conflict, China is willing and able to utilize effective sanctions against the U.S. 

Nuclear Weapons

Towards the end of 2022, the Chinese Communist Party ended its zero-COVID policy. Suddenly, the country saw an increase in outbreaks that led to a pronounced decrease in labor and productivity. Nonetheless, in February, China saw its best month for economic growth in nearly 11 years. China’s economy is “staging a steady recovery and demonstrating vast potential and momentum for further growth,” says Premier Li Keqiang. As a result, with a prospering economy, China has accelerated its development of nuclear power to deter the United States from any conflict of interest pertaining to Taiwan. 

As unemployment decreases to 5.5% in China, urban jobs increase by nearly 12 million. This, combined with an economic growth target of 5%, means China has a significant economic advantage over the United States, taking a pivotal role in the development of Chinese nuclear power and missile technology. 

Subsonic is used to characterize a missile that travels below Mach 1. In other words, a supersonic travels at speeds greater than sound. The hypersonic missile carries standard explosives or nuclear warheads while traveling at least 5x the speed of sound (>15,000 miles per hour). The United States is projected to develop the weapon by fiscal year 2027. However, in 2021, government officials confirmed that Beijing test launched a hypersonic missile over the South China Sea that sent shockwaves through Washington. 

Figure 1: The Danger of Hypersonic Missiles

China’s hypersonic missile is a major threat to U.S. national security. Not even the aircraft carrier, the foundation of the United States’ national defense strategy, deters the hypersonic missile. For centuries, the United States was heralded for its advanced technology that held supremacy over the much more efficient production of Chinese weaponry. Today, the test launch confirms that the United States trails China in not only production but technology as well. 

Again, China’s military strategy is heavily rooted in diplomacy and economy. As mentioned above, because of China’s surging economic growth, the country is able to dedicate roughly 1.55 trillion yuan ($224 billion) annually to military spending. As a result, China contributes a considerable amount of its budget toward acquiring more advanced warfare technology from allies. Chiefly, Russia has assumed a major role in the development of Chinese shipbuilding and weapons systems technology. 

Take-Home Points

  • A resilient, diversified economy is paramount to a country’s national security.
  • The United States must create a profitable commercial shipbuilding industry to compete with China’s production of naval vessels. 
  • China’s pervasive, command economy is able to effectively sanction the U.S. in the event of conflict. 
  • China’s unemployment rate, economic growth, and military spending contribute considerably to the nation’s maritime dominance and nuclear technology.

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