China's military is fast approaching "near parity" with western nations, according to a new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
In its 2017 Military Balance report, which focuses on global military capabilities and defense spending, IISS experts say that China has made significant progress in research and development and improved its military capabilities, putting it close to on par with the US and other allies.
"Western military technological superiority, once taken for granted, is increasingly challenged," Dr. John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive of IISS, said in a statement. "We now judge that in some capability areas, particularly in the air domain, China appears to be reaching near-parity with the West."
A Chinese tanker soldier with the People's Liberation Army at Shenyang training base, China. | DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen
Instead of its usual practice of working on systems that imitate Soviet and Russian technology, China has shifted its efforts (and budget) to domestic research and development. Its Navy is currently working on three new advanced cruisers, 13 destroyers, and outfitting other ships with better radar.
But China's efforts on new aircraft have been the most effective.
China's J-20 | Chinese Military Review
China has its own stealthy J-20 and J-31 fighters, helped in part by stolen technical details of the F-22 and F-35, though it still seems to lack many of the capabilities of its US counterparts. But Beijing has made up for that in the development of a long-range air-to-air missile that has no western equivalent.
"Seen on exercise last year and estimated at near-six meters in length, this developmental missile likely has the task of engaging large high-value and non-maneuvering targets," Chapman said. "With a lofted trajectory, an engagement range around 300 kilometers would appear feasible."
That long range makes that kind of missile particularly deadly to aircraft that supports short range fighters, such as aerial tankers and AWACS, which provide an airborne radar platform.
Interestingly, the report notes, China's progress is "now the single most important driver for US defense developments."