It is being estimated that China’s defence budget will reach a whopping US $148 billion in 2014, second only to the defence budget of the USA and leaving behind the combined defence budgets of western nations such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom. China’s defence budget has risen each year for two decades and the trend shows no sign of abating. Thanks to rapidly rising defence expenditures by China and Russia, global defence spending is rising for the first time in five years. Across Asia-Pacific, there is an arms race brewing as nations try to secure their interests at a time of geopolitical transition. The region is likely to account for nearly 28 per cent of global defence spending by 2020.
Last year China had hiked its defence budget by 10.7 per cent to USD 115.7 billion, well above India’s defence spending of USD 37.4 billion. While its civilian leadership has tried to downplay the increase suggesting much of it will go to human resources development, infrastructure and training, it is the response of the Chinese military that should be a matter of concern. The military has been unambiguous in suggesting when it comes to military spending, there is no need for China “to care about what others may think”.
Divisions within China about the future course of the nation’s foreign policy are starker than ever before. It is now being suggested that much like young Japanese officers in the 1930s, young Chinese military officers are increasingly taking charge of strategy with the result that rapid military growth is shaping the nation’s broader foreign policy objectives.
Civil-military relations in China are under stress with the PLA asserting its pride more forcefully than even before and demanding respect from other states. Not surprisingly, China has been more aggressive in asserting its interests not only vis-à-vis India but also vis-à-vis the US, the EU, Japan and Southeast Asian states. There is a sense that China can now prevail in conflicts with its regional adversaries. Some voices have openly called for wars. The Air Force Colonel, Dai Xu, has argued that in light of China’s disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, a short, decisive war, like the 1962 border clash with India, would deliver long-term peace. This would be possible, as Washington would not risk war with China over these territorial spats, according to this assessment.
The increasing assertion by the Chinese military and changing balance of power in the nation’s civil-military relations is a real cause of concern for China’s neighbours. The pace of Chinese military modernisation has already taken the world by surprise and it is clear that the process is going much faster than many had anticipated. China launched its first aircraft carrier last year as well as several versions of new fighter jets including a stealth fighter bracing to deal with big US military push into Asia Pacific.
A growing economic power, China is now concentrating on the accretion of military might so as to secure and enhance its own strategic interests. China, which has the largest standing army in the world with more than 2.3 million members, continues to make the most dramatic improvements in its nuclear force among the five nuclear powers, and improvements in conventional military capabilities are even more impressive.
What has been causing concern in Asia and beyond is the opacity that seems to surround China’s military build-up, with an emerging consensus that Beijing’s real military spending is at least double the announced figure. Tensions are escalating between China and its neighbours. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has suggested the two countries are “in a similar situation” to Germany and Britain just before the outbreak of World War One.
At this critical juncture in the regional strategic landscape, India’s own defence modernisation programme is faltering despite this being at a time when India is expected to spend $112 billion on capital defence acquisitions over the next five years in what is being described as “one of the largest procurement cycles in the world”. Indian military planners are shifting their focus away from Pakistan as China takes centre-stage in future strategic planning.
Over the past two decades, the military expenditure of India has been around 2.75 per cent but since India has been experiencing significantly higher rates of economic growth over the last decade compared to any other time in its history, the overall resources that it has been able to allocate to its defence needs has grown significantly. The armed forces for long have been asking for an allocation of 3% of the nation’s GDP to defence. The Indian Parliament has also underlined the need to aim for the target of 3% of the GDP. Yet as a percentage of the GDP, the annual defence spending has declined to one of its lowest levels since 1962. And now with a slow-down in the Indian economy, the Indian prime minister has suggested that the golden age of defence modernisation is already over.
But defence expenditure alone will not solve all the problems plaguing Indian defence policy. More damagingly, for the last several years now the defence ministry has been unable to spend its budgetary allocation. The defence acquisition process remains mired in corruption and bureaucratese. India’s indigenous defence production industry has time and again made its inadequacy to meet the demands of the armed forces apparent. The Indian armed forces keep waiting for arms while the finance ministry is left with unspent budget year after year. Most large procurement programmes get delayed resulting in cost escalation and technological or strategic obsolescence of the budgeted items. The present defence minister has been one of the most ineffective leaders of India’s defence establishment.
The Indian government is yet to demonstrate the political will to tackle the defence policy paralysis that is rendering all the claims of India’s rise as a military power increasingly hollow. The capability differential between China and India is rising at an alarming rate. Without a radical overhaul of the national security apparatus, Indian defence planners will not be able to manage China’s rise.
An effective defence policy is not merely about deterring China. But if not tackled urgently, India will lose the confidence to conduct its foreign policy unhindered from external and internal security challenges.
(By: The Indian Express)