Winning by an arm’s length
With the recent double-digit spending increase, China’s defence budget officially passed the symbolic barrier of $100 billion. Admittedly, it is a barrier that was probably crossed earlier as most independent estimates put the country’s actual military spending at between 50 and 100% more than the official figures.
With increases in India’s defence spending barely topping 5%, an already significant defence gap continues to grow apace. With both countries armed with nuclear weapons, there is a case for arguing that what China spends on its conventional military is irrelevant. (Neither India nor China count their nuclear arms spending in their defence outlays.) This is true for old-fashioned wars of conquest. But today’s military threats lie more in the sense of the ability to humiliate or intimidate.
The knowledge that another country is militarily superior leads governments to bend policies — increasingly without a shot being fired. Perhaps just as importantly, a Nepal or Myanmar will be moved by a perception of Chinese superiority over India while determining their policies to both countries.
Fortunately, Beijing has done a poor job of mating its might with its softer sources of influence, notably diplomacy. Over the past half-decade, China has gotten into arguments with all its neighbours. As a consequence many of them have embraced the United States.
This is important because it casts every increase in Chinese military power in a different light. If China had been able to maintain its claims to a “pacific” rise to power, there would have been a basis for arguing that Beijing’s defence increases were commensurate with the growth of its economy.
China, after all, has been increasing its yearly defence expenditure by 10% or more for decades. More weightage would have also been given to the need for an incoming Chinese leader like Xi Jinping to keep the powerful People’s Liberation Army pleased. The latter is certainly the most important consideration driving Chinese defence expenditure.
If Beijing combined its military boosts with sounder diplomacy, there would have been little cause for concern. But the erratic nature of its foreign policy — statements on pacificity transforming into overt belligerence and back again — means its military capacity will be interpreted in the worst possible way.
This is already evident: the Indo-Pacific region is in the throes of a slow-motion arms race with many of the fastest growing defence budgets in this area. Unfortunately, India’s defence spending is not only slowing down, the effectiveness of what it does spend is severely constrained by a fossilised defence ministry and an ineffective defence minister. Given the gridlock in New Delhi, Beijing is unconcerned about the conventional military capacity of India.