Home / Opinion / India lags China in new arms race

Exactly a century ago, two rival countries looked at each other suspiciously. One described its neighbour as the “peril from the East" while the other intimidated by the industrial and scientific might of its more powerful rival. The two nations were Germany and Russia. Both armed themselves without thinking of the consequences. It took an unrelated incident in a third country to spark the First World War.

A century later, the world is re-arming itself in almost the same way. A new study, IHS Jane’s Annual Defense Budget’s Review, to be released on 13 February found that global defence budgets are rising for the first time since 2009. The only exception to this trend has been the Asia-Pacific region where, ominously, military expenditures continued to rise before 2009 as well.

Among the top 10 spenders in 2013 were China, Japan and India from Asia (spending $242 billion, roughly 21% of the total expenditure among the top 10 spenders). The US, of course, remains the biggest spender at $582 billion.

According to the report, “total global defence spending in 2014 will be $1.54 trillion, up from $1.53 trillion in 2013—0.6% increase in real terms". And Jane’s isn’t an isolated study to come up with these numbers. Data from other sources—such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI—confirm these trends.

Take Asia as a whole. Data from SIPRI show that from 1988 to 2012, Asia was the biggest defence spender. Within the continent, East Asia was the leading spender, followed by South Asia. The Jane’s study also points out that four of the five fastest growing defence markets were in West Asia. Again, this is something confirmed by the SIPRI data.

So what is leading to this?

The two global military and political hotspots in 2013 were China and Japan and Iran in West Asia. Data mentioned above correlate well with these troubled regions.

Countries do not take decisions to spend money on armaments and military equipment just when they are about to go to war. Because the world is a far safer place than what it was in the first half of the 20th century, tensions take time to turn into conflicts and wars. That time is used by countries to build their military strength. China and Japan have done that for a while now. India has been one of the big, if somewhat haphazard, buyers of military equipment—it is responding to the threats from China and Pakistan.

So it was disturbing to hear defence minister A.K. Antony say on Thursday that India will not be able to close the $20 billion deal to buy fighter jets for the Indian Air Force till the next fiscal year because the military has run out of money. The aircraft will now have to be bought next year by the next government. This is another example on how the weakening of the Indian economy in recent years hurts not just the welfare of citizens but also the ability of the country to defend its borders.

For the record: Indian defence spending in 2013 was dwarfed by how much China spent—$46 billion compared to $139 billion.

The 20th century was a military century—two world wars, many small ones, technology devoted to the pursuit of more lethal weapons and, in general, a militarized way of looking were its undistinguished features. But the presence of two superpowers ensured some order. The world has changed since then. Is 2014 more like 1914 when countries armed themselves without considering the chain reaction such arming can create? It should be an interesting year.

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