China, obviously, will be our strongest long-term competitor in the world, both economically and militarily. But the form that competition will take isn’t always clear.

A lot of alarmists like to point to China’s growing military muscle. They’re modernizing their army and air force, expanding their navy and improving their missile technology.

But while the numbers can be impressive, most people overestimate China’s military strength because they underestimate the effects of technology and the more prosaic arts of transport and logistics, both of which fall under the heading of “force projection.”

Let’s look at technology. China’s air force, for example, contains about 2,000 fighters, bombers and attack planes, and is being modernized. But as you may notice from the link, that’s largely because obsolete planes are being dropped from the inventory, not because large numbers of advanced planes are being added. And the technology of those “advanced” planes still trails ours by a generation or more. The backbone of its fighter fleet, for instance, remains the MiG-21, a design that is more than 50 years old.

Similarly, the Chinese navy is trying to build the first Chinese aircraft carrier. Sounds impressive until you realize it’s based on the never-finished hull of an old Soviet carrier, the 67,500-ton Varyag. Meanwhile, we’ve got 12 carrier battle groups, built around 100,000-ton Nimitz-class and CVN-21 ships. That doesn’t even count the various minicarriers we’ve got, like our amphibious assault ships.

And while the Chinese Army musters an impressive 2 million or so, it’s mostly infantry, without decent transportation options. And their heavy units are armed with largely obsolete tanks and artillery.

Where does force projection come in? Well, in order to fight a war in the Middle East, for example, a military needs to be able to get the troops there and then supply them with food, ammunition and equipment. That takes a staggering number of ships, airplanes and trucks, not to mention the warships, fighter planes and security troops needed to protect the supply routes.

It’s such a staggering job that there is currently only one country with the ability to fight a war anywhere in the world: the United States. China may be growing powerful, but they simply are unable to invade, say, Canada. And they will remain unable to project serious force for a long, long time.

So militarily, China poses only a regional threat. Fight in the Mideast? We win. Fight in countries neighboring China? More of an even match, with quality and long supply lines squaring off against quantity and short supply lines. Invade China? We lose. The initial fighting aside, there’s simply no plausible way to occupy and pacify 1.3 billion people.

But if China isn’t a serious military threat, it still poses an interesting economic and diplomatic challenge.

(Continued at Midtopia)

Politics China’s global reach