U.S. Military vs. China Military: Which Spends More?

The United States and China are the world's biggest military spenders, but dollar for dollar the U.S. spends far more. It's not only spending more than China, but the U.S. spends almost as much on its military as the eight other nations on the top 10 list of military spenders combined.

The U.S. spent $649 billion on its military to 2018, according to a report published in 2019 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That's significantly more than China, second on the list of top military spenders.

Together, the report says, the U.S. and China are responsible for half of the world's military spending. Overall, global military spending is at its highest level since 1988, when reliable figures first became available.

U.S. Military Spending

The U.S. trimmed its military budget for years, but the belt-tightening period seems to be at an end, at least for now. The nation's 2018 spending represents 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.

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," says 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 $250 billion in 2018.

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.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. is the world's top military spender, at $649 billion in 2018.
  • China is a distant second at $250 billion.
  • The two nations together are responsible for half of the world's military spending.
  • The U.S. is increasing its military spending for the first time since 2010.

Special Considerations on Military Spending

Global military spending hit $1.82 trillion in 2018, an overall increase of 2.6% that was largely driven by the U.S. and China.

Some observers may find it surprising that Russia is only number seven on the list of military spenders, behind India and France. The Stockholm Institute notes that, if Russia is spending less, its Eastern European neighbors are spending more in order to stave off the perceived growing threat from the former Soviet Union. Poland increased its budget by 8.9% in 2018, to $11.6 billion, and Ukraine spent 21% more, for a total $4.8 billion. Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania all increased their military budgets by 18 to 24%.