How much is China really spending on defense? Official Chinese spending is about 30 percent of what the U.S. spends. Yet China has a larger, by about 53 percent, number of troops on active duty than the 1.3 million strong American military. The Chinese not only build about three times as many warships each year compared to the United States, but also produce more warplanes and armored vehicles.
The situation with China is similar to what went on during the 1947-1991 Cold War when figuring out how much the Soviet Union (communist Russian empire) was actually spending on defense. Until near the end of the Soviet Union, the Russians never published an accurate defense budget. For most of the Cold War the official budget, the one available to most Russians and all foreigners, showed a number that was less than 25 percent of what the U.S. spent.
In the last few years of the Cold War a reform-minded Russian leader published more accurate defense spending data. This showed annual defense spending that was about 70 percent of what the Americans spent. …
Russia was actually spending about 20 percent of GDP on the military, a percentage more than three times what the U.S. spent. The government went public with the actual defense spending to explain why the Soviet Union had such a low standard-of-living compared to the West. As long as the defense spending remained so high poverty would increase each year. By the 1980s this was visible with growing food shortages and less spending on infrastructure, housing and things that mattered most to the majority of Russians.
Avoiding the Soviet economic mistake:
The Soviet Union was not defeated militarily but economically. The Soviet Union literally fell apart in 1991, with half the population forming themselves into 14 new nations. The Soviet Union didn’t fight this because it couldn’t rely on the security forces. Most of them were conscripts who knew how bad life was. Even many career officers, especially the younger ones, were not willing to fight to preserve the Soviet Union.
China was alarmed at the sudden demise of the Soviet Union and learned from it. During the last decade of the Soviet Union China realized that the communist economic model did not work, and devised a new system that retained the communist dictatorship but allowed the economy to operate largely free of tight government control.
Avoiding the WWII fascist military expansion mistake:
This was similar to the fascist model that emerged after the first World War. During World War II Germany, Japan, Italy and several other smaller nations had adopted the fascist model. China learned from that as well. The World War II fascists destroyed themselves with overambitious military expansionism. …
The Chinese fascist state revved up the economy and built a huge and powerful military but used that force to intimidate rather than wage war on a ruinous and potentially self-destructive scale. Slow-motion and more subtle conquest was actually something of a Chinese tradition developed over thousands of years. …
A Chinese innovation implemented once the market economy was adopted was to make the enemy pay for the Chinese economic and military buildup. Not in the traditional way, with armies being sent out each year to spend a few months plundering enemy territory, or using the threat of that to extort large payments for “protection” from the plundering.
China realized that the most valuable item foreign nations had was technology, especially secret military technology and commercial tech (“trade secrets”) not protected by patents. To use that patented commercial tech you had to pay for it and the trade secrets were even more difficult to obtain legitimately. But if you stole trade secrets and patents and modified it a bit you could get away with calling it Chinese developed. This tech plunder has been a major factor in the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and the military.
An interesting perspective from a prominent military historian.