Analysis is easy when you assume your opponent is just a lesser version of yourself; a likely reason we often defer to simple defense budget comparisons when talking about China. When we focus solely on the dollar-for-dollar budget of the People’s Liberation Army, we’d find it disturbingly close to the U.S. budget and certainly beyond those budgets of U.S. allies. The reality, however, is more complex – but it is even less optimistic.
Though “China is not the United States,” is a simple statement, it digs at many comparative biases we retain when comparing our position to the oncoming PLA freight train. Outside the typical discussion of expanding budgets and the asymmetric advantage through anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), comparative advantages can also be found in China’s superior purchasing power, superior force distribution, and a first-mover advantage. These are the silent advantages missing when we focus narrowly on budgets or tactics.
Hipple is always worth a read. And while China cannot match us as a global power, they don’t (currently) need to. They have to be able to match us (or surpass us) in the Western Pacific.
The historical model would be the 5:5:3 ratio from the Washington Conference, limiting the naval strengths of the US, Great Britain, and Japan. Japan knew that even only having 60% of the tonnage of either the US or Britain, she could still build a powerful enough Navy to defeat the combined fleets of the US and Britain, given that both the US and Britain would be compelled to use much of their available tonnage in other theaters.
China can do that math just as well.