Comparing China’s military spending to that of the United States, for example, doesn’t make much sense. The Chinese military’s first and paramount mission is preserving the power of the Chinese Communist Party against China’s own people. The U.S. military can focus entirely on external threats.
The lines that plot the comparative GDP of the United States and China distort the real balance of power between the two societies, Beckley argues, because China must devote such a large share of its resources to basic subsistence needs to avert the overthrow of the state.
Beckley dramatizes this point with historical context. The concept of GDP did not exist in the 19th century, but economists have retrospectively reconstructed those figures backward into time. They have found that in the 1800s, the Chinese empire had a GDP much larger than that of Great Britain. The Chinese army of 800,000 men also enormously exceeded Britain’s troop numbers. Yet when the two states clashed in the two Opium Wars, from 1839 to 1842 and again in 1858, China was crushingly defeated. Why?
A great part of the answer, then as now, was the cost of repression.
Nineteenth-century China faced an average of 25 local uprisings a year. Most of its troops had to be deployed to suppress rebellions and control banditry, leaving few available for war-fighting.
The next part of the answer is that mass is not power.
Although China’s resources were enormous in the aggregate, most were consumed by the basics of subsistence. In the 19th-century, Britain produced only half as much as China, but it did so with one-thirteenth the population—making more wealth available for more purposes.
A final piece of the answer is that technological copycats face huge disadvantages against technological innovators. They will always lag behind the more creative rival, not only in the factory, but on the battlefield. “Repeatedly during the Opium Wars … Chinese armies of thousands were routed in minutes by a few hundred, or even a few dozen, British troops,” Beckley notes.
Beckley does not suggest that the lopsided outcome of the Opium Wars would repeat itself in the 21st century. Anyway, nuclear powers do not fight expeditionary wars on each other’s territory. Instead, Beckley seeks to highlight the immense defects of gross GDP as a measure of national strength—factoring in the costs of repression—and the strategic predicament of China’s location, barred from the open ocean by a ring of potential enemies on its eastern front, extending from Russia, through Korea, past Japan, to the Philippines, and then to Vietnam.
I spoke with Beckley shortly before Biden’s address to ask whether he had revisited any of his assessments since finishing his book early in Donald Trump’s presidency. He said that he had become more alarmed by China’s aggressive and repressive intentions, but remained as dubious as ever about Chinese capacities.