China’s military power has been lagging behind its economic success story. This is now changing. As the latest US annual report illustrates, China is making impressive strides in its military capabilities, which includes a massive and unprecedented growth in its nuclear forces.
The only surprising aspect is that it has taken so long. But growth in wealth invariably leads to growth in military power eventually, simply because the expanded national budget can now allocate a bigger slice of the pie to all government departments. Often, this is the driver of military budgets rather than worsening external insecurities.
Sure, some countries have bucked such trends: the US military remained relatively small in the late 19th century and in the interwar years (1919-1939), much smaller than what its position as the world’s largest economic power would suggest. And many Western European powers as well as Japan maintained relatively small militaries after 1945. These were the consequences of favourable strategic circumstances: the US was secure behind two oceans and western Europe, and Japan could limit its military power because of the US security umbrella.
There is, however, a caveat about China’s defence expenditure: it is not easy to calculate the spending because of the secrecy surrounding it. Though many analysts have been tracking this issue closely, what we know is limited beyond the general consensus — that China projects more than what it actually spends. But there is no consensus on the difference either.
Nevertheless, China’s defence spending in proportion to its GDP has been less than most other major powers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China spends less than 2 per cent of its GDP on its military. This is something Chinese military experts use to suggest that their spending should not concern others.
But a couple of points are worth noting about this ‘limited’ spending. In addition to the possibility of prudence, it is also likely that China could not have spent more, considering that even the current spending represented massive annual absolute growth in its military spending. Thus, from roughly about $10 billion in the late 1980s—not much larger than India’s defence budget at that point—China’s defence budget has ballooned to nearly $300 billion in 2022. India’s defence budget, meanwhile, grew only to about $76 billion. For China’s defence managers, spending this vast wealth has probably not been easy, especially as it grows at a fast pace each year.
This limited proportional spending is possibly also the consequence of the growth speed of China’s economy, which allowed the country to grow its budget in absolute amounts rapidly. Thus, keeping its proportionate spending limited has not been a difficult task. If this is correct, we should expect the proportion to tick upward in the coming years, as China’s growth slows. Used to an annual increase in the absolute size of the defence budget, China is unlikely to significantly reduce it. Thus, in the coming decade, we should expect China’s military budget, which is already larger than the next thirteen Asian powers combined, to continue to grow.
Parity with the US
China’s growing military power will have broader implications too. What we are witnessing is the emergence of a fully bipolar world order. Until now, China’s economic growth was the only element that made it a peer to the US. At roughly 70 per cent of the US economy, China has climbed to a far better peer position in economic strength than the Soviet Union ever achieved. Despite being considered a polar power in a bipolar order, the Soviet Union’s peer status was owed mainly to its military might rather than its economy, which never grew larger than about 45 per cent of the size of the US economy.
In contrast, China’s military power has lagged behind its economic achievements when compared to the US. But with the growing size and capability of its military, it can be expected to quickly catch up to the US. China already has numerically the world’s largest navy. Its military technology, fortified by an advanced civilian manufacturing sector, is also catching up to the US.
While the US has just launched the world’s first sixth-generation combat aircraft, the B-21 bomber, it is likely that China will be the next power to have such technology. China’s massive nuclear expansion, which will likely increase China’s nuclear forces about four-fold in the coming decade, does not appear to have much purpose as far as nuclear deterrence goes since the US and global nuclear forces have not increased much in the last couple of decades. Rather, it appears designed to give Beijing the parity it seeks with the US —a political rather than a military objective.
A couple of caveats must also be noted China faces a number of neighbours who only seek to preserve and defend the territories they hold. It is a revanchist China, which must fight to take territories from others. Despite China’s military superiority, offensive operations are usually more difficult. Moreover, Chinese forces do not have recent military experience, though the effect of such inexperience is less certain.
Finally, China also faces the possibility that the first major offensive it embarks upon, whether against Taiwan or India or in the South China Sea, could potentially lead many others in the region to come together with the US and other extra-regional powers to form a tighter and more effective regional military alliance. This could deter a prudent strategist.
China, the US and the Indo-Pacific
The political implications of China’s growing military power are also great. It would be felt first in its periphery in the Indo-Pacific, though we should also expect it to rapidly expand outward. We are already seeing Chinese military bases being established in Africa, and a lot more will follow.
China’s military power will also be most potent in the Indo-Pacific, for the obvious reason of proximity, which raises questions about America’s capacity to counter it within the region. The US would require significant assistance from its partners in the region, much more than it did during the US-Soviet Cold War. This may require change in about the nature of American partnerships and burden-sharing, which is never an easy subject in international politics or negotiations.
Finally, this also suggests that we are about to witness heightened global tension, arms racing, crisis and possibly even war in the Indo-Pacific. There can be little doubt that the emerging era is indeed one of war or at least high tension and conflicts.
The author is a professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)