x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bilateral mistrust as China builds military

China is steadily increasing its military spending. This needs to be kept in perspective, but the world would be better off if defence budgets were declining.

News that China's military spending will grow by 11.2 per cent this year, continuing a series of such increases, has caused some alarm, especially since the real figure is believed to be higher than the official $106 billion (Dh390 billion).

Some perspective is called for. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) says that in 2010, the latest year for which data is available, global defence spending hit $1.63 trillion (Dh6 trillion), or 2.6 per cent of the world's GDP - money that could better be used against hunger, disease, pollution and poverty.

The leading military spender is still by far the US, which Sipri says spent 43 per cent of that $1.63 trillion - more than the next 14 states combined. China's defence budget is now the world's second biggest, but as a share of GDP, China's spending is less than half of America's.

Defence spending trends are an indicator of global stability. US strategy and policy are, for better or for worse, reasonably clear: since the late 1940s, US money paid for wars in Vietnam and Iraq, but also the more successful Korean War. Most importantly, US power has shielded its friends for 60 years. Some of China's neighbours are still relying on the US to counterbalance China's power.

China's defence policy, on the other hand, remains opaque. "Purely defensive," says the Ministry of National Defence, but a naval build-up plus sabre-rattling in the Spratly Islands makes many observers wonder how Beijing defines "defensive". So too does China's development of an aircraft carrier - a prime tool for projecting military power.

The hunger for Middle Eastern oil may cause China, like the US before it, to step up its military presence in this region; a naval base is already planned for Gwadar, in Pakistan. And the prospect of being blockaded someday, however unlikely it seems, is said to have propelled China's build-up of naval and anti-ship weapons.

In January, President Barack Obama unveiled a new defence orientation focusing on maritime security in Asia; this response to the Chinese build-up will obviously not ease China's fears.

In Washington last month, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping spoke of his desire to limit China-US tension. Ideally, defence spending by these two countries - and others - would fall, not rise. Chinese and US leaders could then be spent on more worthwhile goals.