On the Up: Defence Spending in Indo-Pacific

Appetite for spending more on military continues across the globe; during the last decade, it has grown from $1.69 trillion in 2010 to $1.78 trillion in 2018 marking the fifth consecutive year of increase. The year 2019 is no exception; US and China plan to spend more this year; Australia has allocated $64.8 billion for defence and ‘raise its defense budget to over 2 percent of its gross domestic product by 2021.’ Likewise, Japan is following suit; and India too has enhanced defence spending.

With a military strength of nearly 1.3 million active-duty personnel, some 900,000 reservists, and about 750,000 full-time civilians, the US is the top military spender in the world. Its financial allocations for defence represents more than the combined figure of the next seven countries (Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, and Japan).

For 2020, President Trump has proposed $750 billion for national defense, an increase of $34 billion which is about 5 percent more than the 2019 spending. Of this, $718 billion is allocated to the Defense Department, and $32 billion is for nuclear laboratories and other agencies of the Department of Energy engaged in national security programs. The US is fighting several smaller wars against Islamic extremists in West Asia, Russia is considered a major concern, but it is China that is inviting greater attention in the US. Acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan identified rapid military modernization of the Chinese military as a major source of concern to the US, and his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee notes “China is aggressively modernising its military, systematically stealing science and technology, and seeking military advantage through a strategy of military-civil fusion,” This has been best summarized in three words: “China, China, China.”

Earlier this month, the Chinese National People’s Congress, announced that the country would spend $177.54 billion on defence, an increase of 7.5 per cent over last year compared with 8.1 percent in 2018, 7 percent in 2017, and 7.6 percent in 2016. Zhang Yesui, spokesperson for the legislative session stated that “China's limited defense spending is for safeguarding its national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, poses no threat to any other country.” The rise is aimed to “meet the country’s demand in safeguarding national security and military reform with Chinese characteristics.”

The Chinese military modernization is focused on both combat and surveillance capabilities. Further ‘the Chinese air force is flying farther, the navy sailing farther, and the rocket force conducting new kinds of exercises.’ The naval growth is noteworthy and between 2014 and 2018 it ‘outpaced that of the British, German, Spanish and Indian navies combined’. It plans to build five more aircraft carriers including nuclear powered, and its investments in carrier borne autonomous naval platforms merits monitoring.

In December 2018, the Japanese government announced that the national defence budget for the fiscal year would be $47 billion, a record increase, as also the fifth consecutive year. Some of the major acquisitions planned are US Aegis Ashore land-based missile interceptor system, F-35A stealth jets, and upgrade of the two existing helicopter carriers to enable them to operate fighter jets. The Japanese government has identified China’s military modernization, and the near continuous and ‘most serious and pressing threat’ of nuclear weapons and missiles threat from North Korea, as primary reasons for increasing the defence budget.

China quickly responded to the Japanese announcement by expressing ‘strong dissatisfaction and opposition’ over the increase in the defence budget and counseled Tokyo ‘to adhere to a purely defensive policy’. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying noted “What Japan has done is not conducive to the improvement of the Sino-Japanese relationship, nor to the overall peace and stability of the region."Japan is also under pressure from the US to spend more on defence and this move supports Japanese initiatives to address ‘Washington's huge trade deficit with Tokyo’.

The Indian government announced $42 billion for defence for fiscal year 2019-2020; but India’s acting Finance Minister Piyush Goyal who presented the budget before the Indian parliament stated “For securing our borders and to maintain preparedness of the highest order, if necessary, additional funds would be provided.” India is confronted with nuclear armed Pakistan and China with whom it has unresolved land borders. Another major issue for India is the presence of the PLA Navy submarines and hydrographic ships in the Indian Ocean, a concern which the Indian Navy chief has openly articulated.

It is fair to conclude that China looms large in the strategic calculus of many nations and is perhaps the driver of the ongoing increase in defence spending of major Indo-Pacific powers. It continues to pursue military modernization relentlessly though annual defence allocations may have been shrinking from double to single digit growth.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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