How to View Defense Spending in Asia

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How to View Defense Spending in Asia

Defense spending in Asia is up in absolute terms but there many other factors to consider.

A recent Defense News special report highlighted global trends in defense spending.  The conclusions are unsurprising; The locus of global military spending (and global military power) is shifting towards Asia, especially as some European countries ramp down defense expenditures. The “Asian Pivot” by the United States threatens to exacerbate this trend, although the United States already devotes a great percentage of its military strength to the Pacific. 

The bulk of new spending comes in the form of investment in air and naval capabilities, revealing an international focus.  Spending on armies can go to either international influence or to domestic security; ships, planes, and the support capabilities necessary to keep them sailing and flying tend to have foreign objectives. 

To be sure, the shift in weight of defense spending can be overstated.  Britain and France remain two of the most prolific spenders, with big ticket items including major warship and aircraft purchases.  A few other European countries (most notably Norway  and Poland ) have also accelerated defense spending.  Taken as a whole, the European Union can throw around a considerable amount of military weight, especially given the lack of any internal tensions.  Moreover, the purveyors of the most sophisticated defense technology continue to hail from Europe (as well as the United States).

The increase in absolute defense spending in Asia obscures an important truth, however; despite the increases, the economies of East and South Asia remain relatively demilitarized in comparison to the Cold War. Apart from North Korea, no South or East Asian country spends more than three percent of its GDP on defense.  India devotes a considerably lower percentage of its economy to defense today than it did during the Cold War. Chinese military expenditures have similarly declined as percentage of GDP.  Russia spends only a tiny fraction of what it spent during the Cold War, and unlike China and India it spends from a smaller pie. Japan, of course, remains constitutionally committed to 1% spending, which remains an enormous amount because of the size of the Japanese economy. By comparison, the United States currently spends 4.5% of its GDP on defense (including costs associated with the ongoing war in Afghanistan) while both Britain and France spend more than 2%. 

There are at least three potential interpretations of the increase in Asian defense spending. The first is straightforward; Asian powers are beginning to transform post-Cold War economic growth into military power, producing more modern, competent, and capable military organizations (especially at sea and in the air). The broad trend of defense growth suggests that these increases represent balancing against one another, perhaps with a focus on China.

A second interpretation, however, implies that the great powers of Asia feel relatively secure, and have not yet begun to engage in the kind of defense buildup that would suggest real concern about their safety.  In American political culture, dire warnings about the paucity of the defense budget are common, and yet few-to-no Asian countries devote nearly the same resources to defense as the U.S. In this interpretation, the absolute increases represent simply the results of economic growth, perhaps looming larger in the imagination because of simultaneous cuts to European budgets. 

A final interpretation is that the atmosphere of relative security in Asia depends on U.S. military hegemony, and that this hegemony depends on the willingness of the United States to spend and the willingness of potential competitors not to spend. U.S. military capability does not yet appear so threatening that enemies have balanced in response, and the potential for U.S. intervention in any given conflict holds down expenditures.

These interpretations are not wholly incompatible with one another.  If states like India and China continue to grow at a faster rate than the United States (a good, though not certain, bet), however, then even normal, absolute increases in defense spending will disrupt the atmosphere of U.S. military hegemony, reducing the sense of regional security and potentially spurring additional, security related spending.  Unfortunately, there is little that the United States can do unilaterally to prevent this outcome; the difference between 3.5% of GDP (which the U.S. currently spends not counting the War in Afghanistan) to defense and 4.0% only pushes back the timeframe of a major regional shift.