China’s armed forces makes a lot of headlines these days, with 2.3 million active military personnel and the world’s second largest defence budget. Some people, like the bloggers at Global Firepower, take this to mean that China has the world’s third most powerful military, behind the U.S. and Russia and followed by India and Britain. But this thankfully abstract debate is far from settled, and one top authority says that China’s military is still inferior to little Britain with its 224,500 active military personnel.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, director of UK Defence Policy Studies at the renowned Royal United Services Institute, says Britain would have a clear advantage in a straight fight at an equidistant location.
Chalmers described the modern paradigm in a widely reported 2011 article:
The UK will never again be a member of the select club of global superpowers. Indeed it has not been one for decades. But currently planned levels of defence spending should be enough for it to maintain its position as one of the world’s five second-rank military powers (with only the US in the first rank), as well as being (with France) one of NATO-Europe’s two leading military powers. Its edge — not least its qualitative edge — in relation to rising Asian powers seems set to erode, but will remain significant well into the 2020’s, and possibly beyond.
We recently contacted Chalmers to ask if this paradigm still held and to elaborate on how Britain could beat China.
He wrote back:
I think my 2011 comment remains valid. If you take individual elements of front line military capability — air, sea, land — the UK armed forces continue to outmatch those of China in qualitative terms by some margin. The UK also has greater capabilities for getting the most out of these forces, through key enabling capabilities (command and control, intelligence, strategic transport).
Not least, the UK has greater capability than China for operating at range. China (and even more so other Asian powers) remain focused on their immediate neighbourhoods, with limited capabilities for power projection. This is likely to change over the next decade. For now, though, China would still be out-matched qualitatively in a ‘straight fight’ with the UK in an equidistant location (the south Atlantic? The Gulf?), and would be unable to mobilise a force big enough to outweigh this quality gap. China’s quantitative advantages would come into play in the event of a conflict in its own neighbourhood — and its qualitative weaknesses would be less important, though still significant. So my statement was never meant to imply that the UK could outmatch China off the latter’s own coastline.
Britain’s military power comes at a high cost, namely $US61 billion, the fourth highest defence budget in the world behind the U.S. ($683 billion), China ($166 billion), and Russia ($91 billion).
Over time, the rise of China seems inevitable, though it won’t pass America in the foreseeable future.
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