Meeting in Beijing this week, China’s parliament, known as the National People’s Congress (NPC), is expected to rubber-stamp a government decision to substantially increase the giant nation’s military budget. Although few details are revealed, experts believe that the move will raise defense expenditure from some 7.3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to around 12 per cent.
The Chinese justify the increase with reference to the need to modernize their ageing weapons’ systems and develop new technologies. The United States has already criticized the move as “an excessive measure” that could heighten tension in the Far East. Washington is concerned that a Chinese military build-up may increase the temptation to annex Taiwan by force.
Although no one should ignore the Chinese obsession with Taiwan, it is unlikely that the increase in the defense budget is related to aggressive intentions toward the island.
The Chinese leaders may have other concerns.
The first of these are related to religious and political fissures in Central Asia. Although the Uighur revolt in East Turkistan (Xingjian) appears to have cooled somewhat, partly thanks to massive economic development, several Islamic groups remain committed to their Jihad against an “Infidel Communist” power.
The Islamists are also fighting in Uzbekistan and, to a lesser extent, in Kyrgyzstan. At present, they appear to have little chance of causing much mayhem, let alone winning power in either Tashkent or Bishkek. Nevertheless, they could be seen as form of chronic illness that weakens and ultimately destroys a system.
Afghanistan and Pakistan, both neighbors of China, also face a determined Jihadist challenge that, if successful, would look to Xingjian as its natural hinterland.
Fissures in China’s territorial integrity could open a Pandora’s Box of centrifugal trends in Tibet, Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia and possibly even Hong Kong and the more prosperous provinces of the eastern seaboard.
It is also possible that China’s leaders are concerned about Russia’s uncertain future. To be sure, President Vladimir Putin has managed to restore discipline in Moscow and, ruling with an iron fist, contained the Chechen and other north Caucasian revolts- at least for the time being. And, yet, Russia, steadily weakened by declining demography and the deepening of fissiparous tendencies, may well emerge as a menacing question mark within the next two to three decades.
Looking toward South Asia, China cannot ignore its giant neighbor and long-time rival India. People forget that China still controls vast tracts of Indian territory, including in Kashmir, captured in the border wars of the 1960s.
As Indian self-confidence rises along with its massive economic development, there is little doubt that India would want to assume a big power role at least in its own region.
It requires little imagination to see situations in which India, a democracy, might not see eye-to-eye with China that, despite its adoption of capitalism, remains a centralized authoritarian state.
Perhaps the most important factor in Beijing’s decision is China’s growing thirst for oil. Even if current consumption levels are regulated in accordance with measures proposed under the Kyoto accords, China’s need for oil is certain to double by 2020. And that is precisely when global oil stocks are expected to peak in advance of a sharp and steady decline. The world may never literally run out of oil. But the history of oil, as a source of cheap energy, may end sometime around 2030 or 2040. Within the next two decades, access to dwindling oil resources may become the major cause of international conflict.
One way to avoid conflict would be the creation of a system of allocations, a form of rationing in effect. But there is little chance of achieving the consensus to make such a system possible. The biggest threat could come to regional despots and adventurers in oil-rich lands who might use oil as a political weapon in pursuit of mad millenarian dreams.
At the end of the Cold War, many experts assumed that a reorganized NATO, with its mission redefined, might assume the task of protecting the global oil trade against all imponderables.
That illusion was quickly dispelled as a majority of NATO’s 26 members actually reduced their defense budgets.
Today only four NATO members, the US, Britain, Turkey and Greece, spend more than 2 per cent of their respective gdps on defense. These are the lowest levels recorded in the past two centuries.
Even Britain, still spending close to 3 per cent of the gdp, has been forced to miniaturize is military machine. Today, the British army consists of some 120,000 men, almost half of the US Marines’ corps. As for the once formidable Royal Navy, it is a mere ghost of its past glory.
The relatively high Greek and Turkish defense budgets, close to three per cent of the gdp, are more related to their quarrels, including over Cyprus, with one another to any desire to help NATO keep the peace anywhere.
Since the 1990s, the US has emerged as the only power with enough clout to impose its will on adversaries. But even the US defense budget of almost $800 billion, close to 3.9 per cent of the gdp, is at its lowest ever.
In 1944, the last full year of the Second World War, the US allocated 44 per cent of its gdp to defense. In the 1950s, which included the Korean War and the development of a massive nuclear arsenal, the US defense budget amounted to 16 per cent of its gdp. For much of the Cold War, the US spent 11 per cent of its gdp on defense.
Theoretically, therefore, the US is still able to mobilize massive resources when and if necessary. But it is clear that the political will to do so is simply not there. The slogan “no blood, for oil” appeals to a majority of Americans who are the ultimate decision-makers of their nation’s global strategy.
Richard Haas, once head of the planning section of the State department under President George W Bush, believes that the power of the US as a global arbiter is on the wane.
It is enough to have a look at the rising stars of American politics to conclude that Haas may have a point. A power declines when its elite lose the will to power.
And, yet, the global system cannot function without the backing of one or more powers capable and willing to impose some standards of behavior.
If the US, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic claims, is a “sunset power”, the global system should start looking for alternatives to assume the tasks that the Americans have performed, especially since the end of the Cold War.
The Chinese, being among the most vulnerable in a world threatened by local adventurism and chaos, know and understand this. This may be why they want to build up their military machine at a time that the Western nations want to dismantle theirs. If attempts at establishing pax Americana fails, should one look forward to a pax-Sinica in a decade or so?