In his opening speech to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which concluded on October 22, President Xi Jinping emphasized that he will now prioritize national security over economic recovery. He also stated that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has the right to use force to take Taiwan. Furthermore, a new addition to the party’s constitution stipulated that China will use force against those who stand in the way of an annexation of Taiwan, a veiled threat to the United States. With Xi guaranteed a third term, and possibly tenure for life, and with the politburo stacked with his supporters, war between the U.S. and China is more likely now than at any time in history.
This article contains a PMESII analysis of China’s capacity to wage war. PMESII assesses a country’s martial capabilities across six dimensions: political, economic, military, social, information, and infrastructure.
The political dimension of PEMSII analysis examines how well or how completely the central government controls the country. With the exception of some terrorist and separatist activities in Xinjiang and very quiet resentment among Inner Mongolians and Tibetans, the CCP has a near complete lock on the Chinese mainland.
The Central Government
Direct elections are only held for the lowest level of local and village representatives, and only approved candidates may run. China has eight minor parties, but they must all concede the leading role of the CCP, making China a de facto one-party state. Since the founding of the PRC in 1949, the CCP, with its more than 90 million members, has had a monopoly on power.
Xi Jinping, the son of a revolutionary, rose through the ranks, becoming China’s leader in 2012. His titles include general secretary of the CCP, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and president of the PRC. The party has conferred on him the title of paramount leader of China.
Since 2012, Xi has led the Belt and Road Initiative, consolidated control over the party and the people, asserted China’s global power, increase his repression of ethnic and religious minorities, strengthened the military, increased government control over private companies, and threatened to annex Taiwan by force.
Xi consolidated his power by eliminating opposition within the party. Since 2012, his anti-corruption campaign has investigated and punished more than 4 million cadres, including 500 senior officials.
The doctrine of China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, “Xi Jinping Thought” has become standard reading in political education and communist reading groups in China and has been enshrined in the PRC constitution.
The New Politburo
At the recent 20th National Congress of the CCP, in addition to gaining a third term as president, Xi further consolidated his power by eliminating the last remnants of opposition, mainly politburo members and cadres associated with the Youth League Faction. They included Premier Li Keqiang, who was replaced, former leader Hu Jintao, who was publicly escorted out of the congress, and Wang Yang, former chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Li Keqiang and Wang Yang both favored economic reforms. Their removal suggests that Xi will continue to tighten his grip over the economy. Wang Huning, considered a leading authority on “Wolf Warrior diplomacy”, was promoted, as was former Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who once warned the United Nations General Assembly that “any move to obstruct China’s cause of reunification is bound to be crushed by the wheels of history.”
Xi’s position and those of his appointees will be made official at the next plenary session of China’s parliament in March 2023.
In his opening speech to the congress, Xi signaled that he was shifting his focus from the economy to national security. With the appointment of Wolf Warrior diplomats, and with no opposition left in government, a more aggressive PRC can be expected, exerting greater control over its people and more likely to enter into a conflict with the U.S. or its allies.
The economic condition of a country has direct implications for its ability to conduct a war, as it must be able to fund its military while ensuring that its citizens have sufficient food and other services.
For nearly four decades, from 1980 to 2019, China’s average GDP growth rate was 8%. Over the past several years, the rate has been trending steadily downward with some forecasts for this year going below 3%. In October 2022, the Chinese yuan hit a record low, breaking 7.3 to the dollar.
Snapshot of the Economy
China is an upper-middle income country with a population of 1.4 billion, a GDP of about US$14.7 trillion (see also Statista), foreign reserves of over US$3 trillion, a per capita GDP of US$12,556 per year, and a Gini coefficient of 3.82. The country’s development is extremely uneven, however, with nearly a quarter of the population still living on less than US$5.50 per day, and a total of 40% remaining poor. Earnings of those in urban areas are more than double those of rural dwellers (see also Statista). In 2022, the percentage of citizens living in poverty is expected to increase, along with the Gini coefficient, due to ongoing pandemic lockdowns.
China’s private debt is 184.49 % of nominal GDP, while government debt totals about 79% of GDP. Foreign debt stands at US$2.6 trillion. State-owned enterprises make up 71% of Chinese firms on the Global 500 List. Together, state-owned firms and the government itself account for 40% of the country’s GDP, while state-owned enterprises (SOE) are responsible for 50% to 60% of total corporate debt. The current economic slowdown has forced the smallest 90% of companies (by revenue) to borrow money to service existing loans.
The real-estate sector accounts for 63% of household debt and 36% of GDP. Real-estate sales have dropped 30% this year. More than 30 property firms have defaulted and more than 29% of real-estate loans have gone bad. A collapse of the real-estate sector is expected to cause China’s stock markets to lose 20% in value. The overall level of non-performing loans at state banks now totals US$534 billion. Somewhere between 13% and 28% of Chinese firms are expected to go cash-flow negative this year.
Through direct borrowing, bonds, and other mechanisms, local governments owe a total of $7.8 trillion dollars, and are expected to have a shortfall of US$1.05 trillion this year. Local government debt is normally repaid through real-estate sales, but the real estate slump is increasing the risk of default.
Belt and Road Investment
China has made about US$1 trillion worth of investments in foreign countries as part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Now, 60% of the countries who borrowed from China are facing economic distress. So far, tens of billions of dollars’ worth of loans have had to be written off, and more requests for loan forgiveness are expected.
Military analysis goes beyond raw troop numbers, and must also consider a country’s total firepower.
The United States ranks first in the world for defense spending with an annual budget of US$770 billion, while China is second with US$230 billion. The defense budget is directly correlated to a country’s ability to purchase and develop new technologies and next-generation weapons and to make the latest equipment available to the largest percentage of its troops.
For overall firepower, the U.S. is ranked first of 142 countries, while China is third, behind Russia.
China has nearly double the available manpower, with roughly 148 million military capable citizens who could potentially serve in the military. China has 2 million active duty troops, the U.S. having 1.39 million. For reserves, the numbers are closer, China with 510,000 and the U.S. with 442,000. China also has 624,000 paramilitary personnel, whereas the U.S. has none.
In the Air
The U.S. leads in terms of aircraft, 13,247 to China’s 3,285. Fighter aircraft: U.S. 1,957, China 1,200; helicopters: U.S. 5,463, China 912; attack helicopters: U.S. 910, China 281; combat drones: U.S. 334 U.S., China 151.
On the Land
The U.S. has more tanks (6,612 to China’s 5,250) and armored vehicles (45,193 to China’s 35,000). China has superiority in many land-based assets, such as artillery. For self-propelled artillery, China has 4,120, while the U.S. has 1,498. For towed artillery: China 1,734, U.S. 1,339; mobile rocket projectors: China 3,160, U.S. 1,306. China may have focused more on the development of this aspect of its military, because it has land borders with 14 countries, all of which have to be defended, whereas the U.S. has only two neighbors, and its land borders require minimal defense only. Most Chinese military personnel are deployed near its borders. The Pentagon estimates that China only has vehicles and transport capabilities to redeploy about 20% of its armed forced within China’s borders.
On the Sea
China has 777 vessels to the U.S. 484. Aircraft carriers: U.S. 11, China 2; helicopter carriers: U.S. 9, China 1; submarines: U.S. 68, China 79. Destroyers: U.S. 92, China 41; frigates: the U.S. has none, but China has 49; corvettes: China 70, U.S. 22; patrol vessels: China 152, U.S. 10; mine warfare vessels: China has 36, U.S. 8.
The U.S was the first and so far only country to use a nuclear weapon in war. Since 1945, the U.S. has conducted atomic-weapon 1,054 tests. Currently, the U.S. has 3,780 warheads with about 1,744 deployed. China has conducted a total of 45 nuclear weapons teats and currently has 350 nuclear warheads.
China only has one official ally with a mutual defense pact, North Korea. However, China now includes the word “security,” rather than defense, as a term that appears in many of its bilateral agreements, as with the Solomon Islands, or its multinational agreements such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Iran is expected to join soon.
China maintains what Beijing calls, “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnerships” with Belarus, Cambodia, Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Laos, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
The next highest level of relationship is the “strategic operative partnership” which China maintains with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Nepal, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Suriname, as well as with the African Union.
Additionally, China has significant economic influence over a number of countries which could, theoretically, be coerced into aiding the PRC in a war against the United States.
In 2016, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, Africa, near the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Chinese companies also own significant stakes in 13 overseas ports, including at least 7 in Europe. Worldwide, China has some interest in more than 100 ports in over 60 nations. The COSCO Group operates and manages 357 terminals in 36 ports from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, Europe and the Mediterranean. Another Chinese port developer, China Merchants Group, claims to have expanded its global port layout to 68 ports in 27 countries.
These ports are designated as civilian, but could be modified to accommodate PLA Navy military vessels. Although not an official base, China has greatly expanded Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, which now acts as a de facto base for the PLA Navy. Just three hours away, Dara Sakor International Airport was developed by Chinese companies with Chinese money. In spite of the town having a population of only 100,000, the airport boasts the longest runway in Cambodia at 3,200 meters. It could easily accommodate PLA Air Force planes. The airport will also be operated by a Chinese company, which raises additional questions regarding a lack of transparency.
The social dimension includes elements such as racial, political, ethnic and religious freedom, as well as fractures which could occur in the society as a result of internal conflicts.
In terms of civil liberties, on scale of 0 to 60, with 0 being the least free, China scores 11. For political freedom on a scale of 0 to 40, China scores -2. Although China has 56 ethnic groups, the political scene is dominated by the Han ethnic majority, which comprise 92% of the population. The central government implements strategies to forcibly alter the demographics of minority-majority regions, such as Xinjiang (Uighur), Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, by relocating Han Chinese to the area, transporting young people to other parts of the country for education, and providing economic bonuses and other incentives to government employees who marry an ethnic minority. In Inner Mongolia, for example, Mongolians now only make up less than 20% of the population.
Religious freedom is guaranteed by the PRC constitution. However, in practice, there is very little freedom of religion. Only five faiths are approved — Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestantism — and those who wish to practice one of these religions must adhere to a state-approved body, such as the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), and the Catholic Patriotic Association. The CCP, through organizations such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs, appoints clergy and approves liturgy. Religious texts, such as the Bible, have been rewritten to include Marxist ideology.
In general, the central government has complete control on the mainland. Hong Kong is a special case, worthy of a separate report. In short, while many citizens in Hong Kong feel no allegiance to the CCP, Beijing controls this special administrative region. Hong Kong holds general elections, but the bulk of government positions are appointed, including the city’s Chief Executive. In 2020, the central government passed the National Security Law in Hong Kong, severely restricting freedoms and special privileges of Hong Kong residents.
Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC), considers itself an independent country. It is a high-functioning multiparty democracy and has a standard of living much higher than that in the PRC. Xi Jinping has vowed to annex Taiwan, by force if need be, and has claimed that the PRC has the right to use force against any third party who stands in the way, a veiled reference to the United States, which supports Taiwan’s defense. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan is considered one of the most likely triggers for a war between the U.S. and China. It would likely involve Japan and other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) and the Aukus alliance (Australia, United Kingdom, and the U.S.).
The information dimension analyzes who controls the flow of information and what information is allowed to be disseminated. China has one of the most repressive information regimens in the world. Although the country officially has freedom of speech, restrictions can be made for speech relating to state secrets, subversion, separatism, or speech which is harmful, terms which are loosely defined and strictly enforced by the CCP.
All major media are state-owned, and the CCP’s propaganda department sends them daily messages regarding what content to cover and which to suppress. Major media for both domestic and foreign consumption include: Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television (CCTV), and China National Radio (CNR); and newspapers China Daily, People’s Daily and Global Times. Additionally, the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) and Radio China International (RCI) specifically target foreign markets.
China’s press freedom ranks close to the bottom of global press freedom, 175 out of 177 countries. In terms of internet freedom, on a scale of 0 to 40, with 0 being the least free, China scores 8.25 on obstacles to access, 2.35 on limits on content, and 0 on violations of user rights.
Due to a lack of freedom of press, speech, or assembly, there are very few protests against the central government. In general, citizens are believed to support Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, as well as poverty-reduction programs. Other Xi policies, such as the pandemic lockdowns which have impacted hundreds of millions of citizens, have been less popular. Additionally, citizens are not happy seeing their standard of living decline, in the face of the worst economy in decades. This will be covered in more detail in the economy section.
In order to conduct a war, a country needs adequate infrastructure and logistics, both military and civilian, to support the deployment of large numbers of personnel and assets, and the manufacture and movement of supplies.
Comparing infrastructure shows airports: China 507, U.S. 13,513; ports: China 22, U.S. 35; merchant marine: China 6,662, U.S 3,627; roadways: China 4,960 km, U.S. 6,586 km; oil production: China 3.775 million barrels per day, U.S. 11 million barrels per day; oil consumption: China 12.5 billion barrels per day, U.S. 20 million barrels per day; proven oil reserves: China 25.6 billion barrels, U.S. 35 billion barrels; waterways: China 11,000 km, U.S. 41,000 km.