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China revs up military spending, complicates U.S. pivot towards Asia

Chinese soldiers in formation
Chinese soldiers in formation
Reuters, The Telegraph, Richard Spencer, 13 Sep. 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/2827473/Chinas-military-ambition-fuels-Asian-arms-race.html

Defense spending in Asia continues to increase rapidly compared to defense spending in the West, according to a report released yesterday by The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading international security think tank based in London. While Chinese military spending — the largest amount among that of Eastern nations — is still approximately one sixth of the U.S.’ total military budget, the gap is closing quickly. And the security implications for Asian nations are rampant should the divide continue to narrow.

"In Asia, the growth of defence budgets is accelerating and military procurements are rising," IISS said in a press release yesterday. Western powers have meanwhile hesitated to respond with their own military strengthening, grappling with "the need to balance financial imperatives against the reality of an uncertain strategic environment."

While inconsistent spending totals and variable exchange rates may cloud the accuracy of the IISS’s report, certain broad trends are undeniable. Asian defense spending is on the rise, up 11.6% since 2010, and Western defense spending is on the decline. The U.S. military budget rose dramatically following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but it fell by about 15% between 2011 and 2013, according to the Council on Foreign Relations and IISS. Seeing as China alone spends more on defense than Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam combined, and that the United States in turn spends more on defense than Italy, France, Germany, and the U.K. put together, the pure power of China and the U.S. in their respective geographic spheres is unsurprising yet exceptionally relevant in understanding today's global power parity.

Of course, military budgets are only one piece of the international balancing act that is military might. While "trends in military spending do reveal something about a country's capacity for coercion," according to CFR, “military budgets are only one gauge of military power." The strength of adversaries, the type of technology a country has access to, the military strategy a country chooses to pursue and the relevancy of training programs all play a part in evaluating the power of an army.

It would then seem that the East is spending wisely. IISS has said that Asian states are finding ways to obtain advanced military technologies that were formerly only available to the West and Russia. "Beijing seems engaged in a pattern of developing test-beds to match existing Western defence technologies," the think tank noted in their report.

The U.S. in turn is intent on allocating a large portion of its dwindling defense resources to Asia as part of a strategic "pivot" towards the region. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describes the pivot (or "rebalancing") as “more interest, more engagement, and more quality assets” in Asia's political, economic and military realms. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell noted that the region’s complexities, and assumedly the reason for the layered approach, are due to the fact that "every country in the region wants a better relationship with China as well as the United States." China’s "prominence and position in the region" necessitate American involvement in protecting the interests of smaller Asian countries — countries whose defense budgets are somewhat of a David to the Chinese Goliath.

China’s recent assertive behavior in the South China Sea — prompting dire pleas from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Benigno Aquino for the support of the international community in resisting China's advances — has some experts connecting China’s recent rise in military spending with a desire for influence over its neighbors. The superpower’s vague territorial claims in the area have "created uncertainty, insecurity and instability," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel said in congressional testimony. "There are growing concerns that this pattern of behavior in the South China Sea reflects incremental effort by China to assert control over the area."

The mismatch between America’s need to maintain superiority globally and China’s desire to call the shots locally reveals a key challenge to the U.S. pivot. Success for America means forging a three-way relationship of sustainable peace between the West, China, and smaller Asian countries, but all China needs is to block the U.S. from gaining a foothold in the area. "(China) wants to be the major player in its own strategic backyard," Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent wrote yesterday, "and to contain US forces there might potentially only require a more limited outlay."

Campbell was right on target when he said that "America’s relationship with China will be the most complex relationship that we have ever had."