How much a country spends on its defense is the most efficient way of measuring its military capability. Apart from being able to predict the outcome of a country’s involvement in an outright war, a defense budget is also indicative of the country’s readiness to engage in such a war.
However, protrusive propaganda often bears more weight than actual facts, leading to a whole generation of people, and in some instances even an entire country, blindly believing what is basically a distortion of the truth.
This seems to be the case with the United States, where the remnants of the Cold War still stand strong, feeding the vox populi that perceives Russia as an imminent threat to their safety. With Russian President Vladimir Putin frequently scathing U.S. foreign policy decisions and threatening to increase Russian military presence in disputed areas as a response to an “aggressive” defense strategy from the U.S., a good chunk of that fear is perfectly justified.
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The rest of the animosity people feel towards Russia comes from the immense propaganda they’re constantly bombarded with. With very little actual evidence to support their rather sensational claims, the media seems to be pushing a narrative in which the biggest threat to the U.S. is Russia.
While an argument can be made to support the claim that Russia is, indeed, challenging the U.S. military dominance, a much larger, and a much more substantive danger is looming on the horizon.
The tension between the U.S. and Russia could, in theory, last forever. Hanging by a thread since the end of the Cold war, the diplomatic relations between the two countries never quite warmed up. Now well into their fourth decade, the strained relations could easily go on for another couple of decades without a major conflict ever breaking out.
There’s a new enemy just around the corner, and this one is not afraid to wage war.
China is more dangerous than one might think
Despite the fact that China doesn’t get that positive of a media coverage in the United States, the general notion people have of the mysterious country is overwhelmingly neutral. There are instances where many argue over human rights, freedom of speech and internet censorship violations, but few ever mention its military might and the dangers it poses to the United States and its allies.
A recognized nuclear weapons state China has the potential to dethrone the U.S. and become the next military superpower. With such a powerful epithet, China has the potential to increase its grip over satellite states like North Korea, Cambodia, and Laos, and create a monopoly on trade that could impact the global market in ways that have never been seen before.
While decades of unease have created a climate in which Russia is the public enemy number one, the numbers tell a completely different story. Russia’s ambitious defense spending goals have led many experts to question their sustainability. The sharp fall in oil prices in 2014 have affected the country’s GDP, living standards, and most importantly – its currency. Economic sanctions enforced by the European Union, Canada, Australia and the U.S. have also had a negative impact on Russian businesses.
Having spent approximately US$69.3 billion on its military budget in 2014, Russia announced budget increases in the following years. However, a collapse in the value of the Russian Rouble significantly impaired Russia’s ability to boost its defense budget.
Since then, the budget has been marginally increasing, but new budgets cuts proposed by President Putin are clear signs of a struggle in the government. Despite Russia-24, a state-owned news channel, reporting on Putin’s reassurance that the 7% budget cut will not affect Russia’s military might back in August, it has clearly affected the way the international community perceives it.
China, on the other hand, has been on a growth spurt since 2010 and shows no signs of stopping. Surpassing Japan in 2010 as the world’s second-largest economy, China has the time, money and human resources to run an maintain one of the largest militaries in the world.
Military spending not always a measure of military power
If the de facto military power of a country was to be measured with its military spending, China ranks in a solid second, accounting for about 13% of the total global spending.
As there is no universally accepted standard for reporting military spending, China has taken advantage of this loophole and has consistently been criticized for the lack of transparency when it comes to its military. The United States, Saudi Arabia, the U.K, France, and India all report their military expenditures to the United Nations. As the decision to disclose military spending is entirely voluntary, some countries provide detailed itemization of their budgets, while others release only one line in their budgetary reporting.
While China does provide official estimates of its defense spending at the beginning of each year, many experts on the subject predict numbers significantly higher than the official numbers. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, official figures released by the Chinese government put the country’s 2016 military budget at around $146.6 billion, almost an 8% increase from their 2016 budget of $144.2 billion. However, with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimating the 2016 figure at $226 billion, it’s clear that the discrepancies between the official data and the third-party estimates exist.
The lack of transparency on behalf of Beijing also makes it hard to predict how China will respond to perceived risks. Analysts use the itemized defense budget to forecast a country’s reaction to all kinds of external threats – from airstrikes, missile launches and maritime attacks to a ground force invasion. By providing limited information about the distribution of its military spending, China forces governments to speculate about the actual size of its budget, creating a sense of panic and urgency.
Being oblivious to the military might of a country such as China puts the United States in a very difficult position. And even though diplomacy is a far more nuanced craft than that, foreign policy becomes much less peaceful when you don’t know which side has the upper hand.
China’s trade surplus does give it a major advantage, but if the unofficial estimates are correct, its military spending could overshadow any authority from the U.S. A country with the largest military force in the world and a growing economy will waste no time fueling geopolitical tensions, or engaging in proxy wars. If a conflict between the U.S. and China should arise, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be a bloody one.