As I recovered from a rough bout of jetlag over the weekend, I came across an interesting piece by William Wan over at the Washington Post. The article explores China’s study of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author points out that, “the shadow of the U.S.S.R. still hangs over many parts of Chinese society. What is considered bygone Cold War history by much of the rest of the world, even by many in Russia, lives on in China.” Wan goes on to note “The obsession is fueled by the fear that, with a few wrong steps, China’s Communist Party would face a similar fate.”
Comparisons between the Soviet Union and China are certainly all the rage these days. The Diplomat has covered this subject several times, with an excellent piece by Center for National Interest’s A. Greer Miesels and another by China Power Blogger David Cohen – well worth your time.
While there are many areas scholars can try and draw comparisons between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the CCP—such as political power, economic reform, technological innovation, and foreign affairs— the roll that massive military spending played in the Soviet Union’s collapse is one area that China should study.
Although figures from different sources vary dramatically (with one estimate as high as 40% of the budget and an amazing 15-20% of GDP by the early 1980s), the Soviet Union spent tremendous sums of rubbles on its military. From MIRV’d missiles and advanced nuclear submarines, to the latest jet fighters, Moscow spent lavishly on the most advanced weapon systems to keep pace in a global struggle for dominance — the classic guns or butter example. As America built companies like IBM, Apple and Microsoft the CPSU struggled to stock its shelves with basic necessities.
So what does China spend on its defense? In a recent piece, Andrew Erickson he observes that:
“Even during the past decade of rapid increases to defense spending, the official defense budget has held steady at roughly 1.3-1.5 percent of GDP—when calculated based on high-end foreign estimates of actual total defense spending during the same period the figure still falls between 2 and 3 percent of GDP.”
For all the talk of new aircraft carriers, advanced missiles, and a blue-water navy, China’s military modernization is nowhere near Soviet levels or anywhere near where it could harm its economy.
The trick now will be for China to keep its defense expenditures in line with the size of its economy. This may be a challenge in the coming years with its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, as well as competition with the U.S. becoming more intense, and its need to protect its growing investments in the Middle East and Africa. Keeping up with these newfound challenges will be particularly burdensome should economic growth slow.
Thankfully for Beijing, the likelihood of some sort of global Cold War with the United States developing remains remote, regardless of hyperbolic rhetoric on both sides. Yet, as China’s power grows, so will its interests in other parts of the world, and so will the need to project military power to protect such interests. As Fareed Zakaria wrote about America’s ascent in the late 19th century, “With greater wealth, the country could build a military and diplomatic apparatus capable of fulfilling its aims abroad; but its very aims, its perception of its needs and goals, tended to expand with rising resources. As European statesmen raised under the great-power system understood so clearly, capabilities shape intentions.”
Can China buck this historical trend by striking an equitable balance between its international goals that demand greater defense spending, and domestic challenges such as caring for an aging population and rebalancing the economy from one that relies on exports to one based on domestic consumption?
Harry Kazianis serves as editor of The Diplomat.