U.S. vs. China Military Spending: Which Is Bigger?

The United States is the world's biggest military spender, and China is a distant second on the list. In fact, the U.S. spends almost as much on its military as the eight other nations on the top 10 list of military spenders combined.

In 2019, the U.S. remained the world's top military spender by far, at about $649 billion. China was second at about $261 billion.

  • The U.S. is the world's top military spender, followed by China as a distant second. India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia round out the top five.
  • China has been aggressively stepping up its military spending in recent years.
  • After several years of cutbacks, the U.S. has begun increasing its military budget.

Top 5 Big Spenders

Global military expenditures rose 3% to $1.9 trillion in 2019, according to the latest figures available from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks the numbers on military spending from year to year.

The top five military spenders were the U.S., China, India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, SIPRI reported.

The U.S. spent $649 billion on its military to 2019, according to SIPRI. That's significantly more than China, second on the list of top military spenders at $261 billion. India, third on the list, spent a relatively modest $71 billion.

Together, the report says, the U.S. and China are responsible for half of the world's military spending. Overall, global military spending rose by 3.6%, its fastest growth in a decade.

The SIPRI data on military spending is compiled from open sources, including primary and secondary sources.

U.S. Military Spending

U.S. spending on military has actually been declining for decades as a percentage of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). From a late 1960s peak of 9.42% during the Vietnam War, defense spending as a percentage of GDP declined to 3.41% in 2019, according to the World Bank. The U.S. trimmed actual dollars from its military budget between 2011 and 2015.

The belt-tightening period seems to be at an end, at least for now. The nation's 2018 spending represented a 4.6% increase, the first since 2010. The additional money is to be spent on a military modernization program that was approved during the Obama administration and is intended to continue for another 20 to 25 years.

U.S. defense spending for the 2020 fiscal year was set at $731.7 billion.

Some argue that the U.S. has woken up to find itself no longer the planet's sole military superpower. "For the first time in decades, the United States military apparatus does not possess a clear advantage on the world stage," said DefenseNews.com. "The flattening of the technological landscape and emergence of peer adversaries requires that the U.S. innovate to remain dominant."

China Military Spending

It may come as no surprise that a nation with a 4,000-year history of achievement is unlikely to play second fiddle for more than a couple of centuries.

In 2013, President Xi Jinping coined the phrase "the Chinese Dream" to capture the country's domestic, regional, and global ambitions. 

The next century may well be defined in part by the tension between the American dream and the Chinese dream.

China spent $250 billion on its military in 2018, an increase of 83% during the period from 2009 through 2018. The U.S., as noted, spent $649 billion, but that represents a reduction of 17% during the same period.

That was enough for China to take second place on the list, outspending a top 10 that also includes Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, the U.K., Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

$18 billion

Total Chinese military budget in 1989. The figure rose to $261 billion in 2019.

It could be argued that China actually outspends the U.S. on its military when personnel costs and purchasing power are taken into account. In fact, Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley made that argument in front of a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in May 2018.

Chinese military spending has risen consistently since at least 1989. The figure for that year was $18 billion.

Special Considerations on Military Spending

Global military spending hit $1.82 trillion in 2018, an overall increase of 3.6% that was largely driven by the U.S. and China.

Other nations are spending urgently, if not as lavishly, on defense. Germany increased its spending 10% to $49.3 billion in 2019, a fact that the Stockholm Institute attributes to the perception of increasing aggression from Russia. Bulgaria and Romania also stepped up their defense spending.