China announced its annual defence allocation at US$141.5 billion on Thursday (March 5), and this makes it the world’s second largest national defence budget. The USA at almost $600 billion has by far the world’s highest military outlay. It may be recalled that India had announced its own defence allocation for the financial year 2015–16 on February 28 and this is pegged at just under $40 billion (Rs.246,727 crore).
This differential should not come as a surprise for the US remains a very high military spender and is also the lead nation in the world’s biggest military alliance – NATO. In the last decade, the US-led war on terror after 9-11 and the subsequent military operations, first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, have led to considerable fiscal expenditure by the Pentagon. The US is unlikely to dramatically reduce its military outlay (about 3. 5 percent of GDP ) in the near future and will remain the world’s most credible and militarily capable country for the next decade plus.
In contrast, both China and India allocate under 2 percent of their GDP towards defence allocation, and given the difference in their respective GDP, the China-India gap is over $100 billion in Beijing’s favor. Most estimates aver that China is relatively opaque about its total defence spending and that the actual amount allocated to the People’s Liberation Army may be closer to $250 billion.
Apart from the PLA military allocation, in past years Beijing had revealed that its internal security budget is higher than its military allocation. However this year, the internal security allocation was not indicated but one may infer that this figure will be in the range of $250 to $300 billion. In summary, the annual military and internal security allocation for China this year could well be in the $500 billion range.
Given the prevailing economic trajectory of China – the annual GDP growth rate has been revised from the double digits of the last two decades to the new normal – of 7.5 percent and the current defence allocation of $141 billion represents a 10 percent increase from the last year.
In his address to the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress on Thursday (March 5), Premier Li Keqiang asserted: “We will comprehensively strengthen modern logistics, step up national defence research and development of new- and high-technology weapons and equipment, and develop defence-related science and technology industries,”. He further added : “Government at all levels must always take an active interest in and support the strengthening of our national defence and armed forces.”
Enhancing China’s overall military capability has been a major objective of the Communist party and from the Mao era through the Deng years to the present period – the unwavering fidelity to this objective has been maintained by the legislature and the military.
In comparison, the Indian story is depressing. From Nehru through the Indira – Rajiv Gandhi decades to the current period, the Indian political class and the legislature have paid lip service to enhancing India’s comprehensive military capability. Rich in rhetoric but devoid of determination, the empirical reality is that despite the Kargil war of 1999 and the Mumbai attack of November 2008 that exposed Indian vulnerability in a stark manner – India’s higher defence management and military preparedness is in relatively poor condition.
Two distressing statistics bear this out. One – in the last two decades, all the three armed forces have been witnessing an alarming level of inventory (tanks, artillery guns, fighter aircraft, ships, submarines) obsolescence and then Army Chief General V.K. Singh (now a minister in the Modi cabinet ) had alerted former prime minister Manmohan Singh about this depressing reality. Yet over the last two decades (from NDA- I under prime minister A.B. Vajpayee ) through UPA- I and II to NDA II now with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm – the Defence Ministry has returned almost Rs.100,000 crores as unspent. This is a travesty and an abdication by the highest levels of national security management – the Cabinet Committee on Security.
Secondly – in the same period, India has become the world’s largest importer of major military inventory, thereby revealing India’s poor indigenous defence design and manufacturing capability.
Reviewing this contrast in the trend lines of China and India and redressing the distortions in the case of the latter is the national imperative. The gap between China and India both in GDP and defence allocation is likely to grow in the next two decades – till about 2045. Managing this asymmetry in an innovative, objective and effective manner such that India’s core national security interests are not jeopardized will be the abiding challenge for the government in Delhi.
The way ahead will lie not in seeking equivalence with China but in Delhi being able to arrive at the contours of comprehensive military sufficiency to ensure appropriate conventional defence and credible strategic deterrence. New military technologies and related capabilities in cyber and space need to be nimbly incorporated and the paradox is that currently the best Indian brains are being hired by foreign entities who will design, patent, manufacture hi-tech products and then sell the same to Delhi.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Defence B.C. Khanduri have both a challenge and an opportunity before them. The time has come to constitute a ‘suraksha niti ayog’ and rigorously deliberate over comprehensive national security and correct the distortions that have weakened India’s overall military profile.
Emotive breast-beating in India about China’s defence allocation is counter-productive. Determinedly emulating the manner in which fiscal allocation has been harnessed to enhance the national techno-industrial base and the military muscle of the PLA may offer the better option.