BRIC Military Modernization and the New Global Defense Balance (Part 2 of 2)
Conventional wisdom holds that the economic rise of the BRICs (Brazil-Russia-India-China) heralds a shift in global power from that of a U.S.-centric basis to one of multi-polar orientation. Military strength, invariably the byproduct of economic strength, is a crucial component when accounting for sea-changes in great power distribution. While sound economies are the engine providing for “hard power” capabilities, a nation’s military might – in balance with its “soft power” – allows for greater sway on the international stage.
As the BRICs have grown in economic strength each has sought to modernize their armed forces in order to protect their interests and expand their influence. Most significant of these efforts are the ambitious military buildups undertaken by China and India. These two nations highlight what is often seen as a slow, but inexorable, West-to-East hemispheric transfer of power. As the “Asian Century” unfolds both eye each other warily, recognizing in the other a potential check on their own regional security aspirations.
China and India – whose economies represent the second-largest and fourth-largest in the world – have officially spent $78.6 billion and $32 billion, respectively, on defense this year. Chinese year-on-year defense spending has risen 7.5 percent in 2010; New Delhi in turn has boosted its defense allocation by almost 4 percent. Considering the degree of economic growth both expect to have achieved by year’s end this increase in defense expenditure can be considered negligible relative to GDP expansion.
However, during the 20-year period prior to this year Chinese defense expenditures annually jumped by double-digits, including 15 percent in 2009. The general consensus is that China’s defense budget as officially divulged is a low-ball figure and that actual military-related spending may exceed $150 million. China’s sustained focus on improving and increasing its military capabilities coupled with what is perceived as growing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) influence upon the country’s foreign policy has prompted unease amongst its neighbors. In response some are boosting their own defense budgets and moving closer to an American embrace.
China’s military expansion is predicated upon safeguarding the country’s access to energy and mineral markets, achieving power-projection capabilities and cementing its status as the preeminent power along the Asian Pacific Rim. For China to attain the latter it must be able to deny the U.S. Navy unmitigated access to the Western Pacific. Accomplishing this would provide China with the added benefit of diminishing U.S. regional influence as Washington’s allies there would be left unsure of its military reliability in times of distress.
With this in mind the PLA’s procurement focus has been on weaponry that can neutralize American air-sea power such as the Dong-Feng anti-ship missile, stealth submarines, air-defense missile systems, reconnaissance satellites and short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a variety of payloads and striking with increased accuracy.
India has a variety of security concerns, stretching from internal terrorist attacks to a potential two-front war with China and Pakistan. Worries over a growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean have prompted a massive $12 billion naval build-up that calls for India to achieve a 160-ship navy by 2022 that will include three aircraft carriers, 60 surface combatants and the absorption of 400 new aircraft into the fleet.
Overall India is expected to spend $50 billion across the next 20 years on a military modernization effort whose centerpiece is a 126-unit medium multi-role combat aircraft competition estimated at up to $11 billion. To pay for all of its new equipment New Delhi plans to increase its defense budget in proportion to the country’s economic growth. Currently India’s defense earmark represents 2.5 percent of its national GDP.
Though both countries are undergoing parallel military expansions there are two distinct divergences at play as each pushes to modernize their arsenal.
The first involves defense industrial capabilities. Despite efforts by India to achieve a benchmark goal of 70 percent self-sufficiency in defense material production by 2005, the country’s defense industrial base – hampered by dysfunctional procurement practices – is only capable of meeting around 30 percent of the armed forces’ equipment needs. China, on the other hand, has a large military-industrial complex. This sector continues to advance primarily through license-production agreements with Russia that result in reverse-engineered Chinese derivatives, and the absorption of technologies garnered through commercial partnerships that are subsequently integrated onto military platforms.
Secondly, despite its home-grown industrial shortcomings, India has access to the world’s principal defense suppliers – a market from which China is largely excluded. Thus India can pit European, U.S. and Russian producers against each other in order to acquire modern platforms that provide it with a qualitative military-technological edge over China.
Ultimately the question surrounding the military advances of China and India militarily is how they affect the greater global defense balance.
Despite its flat-lining defense budgetary trend and recent economic hiccups, the U.S. remains the world’s preeminent military power. However, its ability to extend its reach unmolested to all corners of the globe will gradually be diluted in the Asian Pacific Rim by the rise of China.
Conscious of the need to rely on allies to strengthen its regional position and allow for greater flexibility of action elsewhere, Washington continues to cultivate closer ties with New Delhi as a means to check Chinese ambitions. Yet despite growing defense cooperation with the U.S., India will refrain from any relationship it perceives as placing it in position of secondary partner. Therefore Washington cannot expect a U.K.-like “Special Relationship” with New Delhi.
In the Western Hemisphere, American power remains the long-term reality. Latin America’s recent military expenditure spike – led by Brazil – does not necessarily constitute an arms race (Colombia and Venezuela excepted), but rather a modernization push aimed at phasing out aging inventories in favor of newer ones. Europe remains bound to the U.S. by the NATO Alliance, and the global financial crisis – followed by European sovereign debt scares – has resulted in defense cutbacks and placed European military power on a downward trajectory.
As the global balance of power continues shifting from West to East and Asia becomes the central theater for great-power jostling, one country takes on increasing importance: Russia.
Of the four BRICs, Russia is the most demographically – and perhaps economically – vulnerable. Its once-proud defense industry, despite retaining certain strengths, is marked by decay. The limitations of its conscription-based military were revealed during its brief 2008 war with Georgia; the latest reform effort launched by Moscow marks an attempt to break the Russian Army from this Soviet-era model. With competing interests in Central Asia and a vulnerable southeastern border alongside China, Moscow is uneasy over Beijing’s growing regional influence.
Much like the India-U.S. relationship, if deftly managed a Russia-U.S. partnership in Asia would be of strategic convenience to both parties. It would allow for Russia to feel a greater sense of security to its east and provide the U.S. with a crucial link in its fence of strategic partners encircling China. Unless Washington artfully navigates these and other relations in Asia its position as the lone superpower will recede sooner than expected. In its place may be a new global order full of opportunities for missteps and miscalculations that the U.S. will no longer be capable of policing or preventing.
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