The emerging world’s weaker economies are flexing their military muscles. They'll be better off if no one calls their bluff
If you thought economic wobbles would make China humbler on the international scene, take a look at the military parade the country staged last week in Beijing.
A commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the event saw tanks, missile launchers and more than 12,000 troops cross Tiananmen Square under the eye of international TV channels. But the star of the show was the DF-21 ballistic missile, whose alleged ability to destroy US aircraft carrier, some say, promises to disrupt the balance of power in Asia-Pacific in a not-so-distant future.
“This great triumph … put an end to China’s national humiliation [and] re-established China as a major country in the world,” said Xi Jinping, the country’s president, as he addressed thousands of guests that included Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Looking at what happened on the markets that week, it seems investors in Chinese shares were less confident than Mr Xi. They indeed had several reasons to worry: the country’s economy is slowing down, its currency plummeting and capital is flowing out. Pundits currently wonder whether Beijing can successfully implement long-awaited market reforms without experiencing a major crisis.
To international observers the two may be linked: it’s precisely because doubts are forming about its economy that China wants to demonstrate its military might. Intuitively this makes sense. And in these times of emerging market weakness there are other examples of this: hit by sanctions and rock-bottom oil prices, Russia plays with Europe’s nerves by having its nuclear submarines cruise a bit too often in sensitive waters; Turkey, whose currency is hitting new lows amid a hemorrhage of hot capital, is opening new fronts in its decades-old fight against Kurdish militants.
There are others: South Korea, who just reported the biggest export fall since 2009, is staging large-scale military drills and pumping fresh cash into its army. Venezuela, whose economy is on the brink of collapse, recently traded barbs with Colombia after expulsing 1,400 of its neighbour’s citizens.
But shows of strengths don’t necessarily make an army stronger; neither does fiery rhetoric serve as a good indicator of a military’s power. More informative, to assess whether countries are putting money where their mouth is, is a quick peak at the evolution of their military spending over the last few years.
What the latest data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) tells us is that poorer economic performance doesn’t always mean mightier armed forces. Brazil, for instance, has seen its budget cut by about 6 percent over the last two years. Still, it’s striking how many economies currently in slowdown mode (or in downright freefall) have boosted military spending since 2012.
Here’s a selected sample, all based on estimates in current dollars: Malaysia (+4 percent), Egypt (+9 percent), Colombia (+11 percent), Venezuela (+12 percent), Pakistan (+14 percent), South Korea (+16 percent), Mexico (+24 percent), Turkey (+27 percent), China (+27 percent), Saudi Arabia (+43 percent), Angola (+65 percent). Nigeria has meanwhile seen its budget climb by 50 percent since 2009, a period during which Russia’s also bolstered spending by 64 percent.
How long this trend will hold remains to be seen. Despite a significant boost in absolute over the last few years, military budgets do not represent meaningfully more as a proportion of total government spending than in 2012 (according to SIPRI’s data sets). This suggests that increases in military expenses are not being compensated by a tightening elsewhere; rather, they seem to be part of an overall boom in public spending. Struggling economies may not be able to sustain this for long.
Another question is whether this increased spending is bearing fruit. Evidence here is more anecdotic but seems to indicate that often it is not, with the extra cash often allocated to unproductive purposes. While Russia’s currently undertaking a decade-long modernisation drive, for instance, its army has just begun regular training, and the gains are not being spread evenly across the military. Its air force is old and creaking. And there are more vulnerabilities to be found: this well-researched piece by the Institute of Modern Russia shows how the country would likely be trounced by NATO should a conflict flare up in the Baltics.
This article from the Australian similarly questions China’s military strength. The wording is quite stark: “the People’s Liberation Army demonstrates all the brittleness and paper-thin professionalism of a military that has never fought a modern war and whose much-vaunted military equipment has never been tested in battle.” It goes on to say that the much-feared DF-21 missile “has never destroyed a naval target moving at 40 knots, as a US aircraft carrier in battle formation would. And it relies crucially on intelligence satellites.”
There are plenty of reports out there that are equally scathing about armies from the Gulf States, Pakistan, Venezuela or Mexico. The Colombian and Turkish forces, however, are considered to be decently trained. South Korea is ranked by some as one of the world’s top 10 military powers.
What that suggests is that although aggressive moves and budget increases have recently coincided with economic troubles, the latter may not be what causes the former. Reasons for wanting to boost one’s military indeed differ between countries, and their nature may partly determine whether such efforts are properly carried through.
This great piece in the Diplomat, for instance, argues that China’s recent show of strength was mostly about boosting the army’s morale after brutal corruption purges (and indeed Beijing decided to stage the parade more than a year ago, at a time when stocks were holding fairly well). Russia’s muscle flexing has a lot to do about wanting to intimidate NATO; few observers really think Putin’s up for a proper fight.
Colombia and Turkey, by contrast, are waging real battles, while South Korea is facing both a resurgent China with expansionist ambitions in the Pacific and a North Korea that’s turning into a greater nutcase year after year. Perhaps it’s only when held at gunpoint that countries decide that bulking up their army is really worth a shot.