by Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva

India’s threat perception from China and Pakistan predicts it vulnerable if not prepared to deal with both the belligerent countries with superior weaponry and better strategic manoeuvres besides support from the friendly countries like the QUAD (US, Japan Australia and India).

India therefore remains the third biggest military spender in the world though far behind the US that spends more than 10 times and China four times its defence budget. The total global military expenditure rose to $1981 billion in 2020, an increase of 2.6 per cent in real terms from 2019 despite the global GDP contracting by 4.4 per cent mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic’s economic impact latest data released by global think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on April 26. SIPRI tracks military expenditure and arms trade globally, the US accounted for 39 per cent of the money spent on military globally, China accounted for 13 per cent, and India accounted for 3.7 per cent of the globe’s share.

We can say with some certainty that the pandemic did not have a significant impact on global military spending in 2020. It remains to be seen whether countries will maintain this level of military spending through a second year of the pandemic,” said President Dr. Diego Lopes da Silva of SIPRI.

The 10 biggest military spenders are the US ($778 billion), China ($525 billion), India ($72.9 billion), Russia ($61.7 billion), UK (59.2 billion), Germany ($52.8 billion), France ($52.7 billion), Japan ($49.1 billion), and South Korea ($49.7 billion).

The top five together accounted for 62 per cent of global military expenditure. China’s, in particular grew for the 26th consecutive year with its uninterrupted increase being the largest by far over the 2011-2020 decade. Pakistan ($10.3 billion) was ranked 23rd on the list. India’s expenditure includes a huge pension bill for veterans and defence civilians.

India’s “tensions” and “rivalry” with Pakistan and China are among the main reasons for its increased military expenditure. India’s military spending grew by 6.8 percent to $71.1 billion in 2019, according to the SIPRI report on “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2019”. This was the highest military spending in South Asia.

In the 2021-2022 defence budget, the pension bill was Rs 1.15 lakh crore out of the total Rs 4.78 lakh crore outlays. India also has to maintain an over 15-lakh strong force because of unresolved borders with China and Pakistan. Consequently, the expenditure for day-today running costs and salary bill outstrips the capital outlay for military modernisation, leaving operational shortages on different fronts, ranging from fighters to submarines. The confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh has led India to make several emergency arms purchases from abroad since the crisis erupted last year.

SIPRI said there is also India’s “more general rivalry with China as the main regional power,” it said.

With a weak domestic defence industrial base, India continues to languish in the vulnerable position of being the world’s largest arms importer, behind Saudi Arabia. India accounted for 9.5 per cent of total global arms imports during 2016-2020.

While India’s spending since 2019 grew by 2.1 per cent, the increase for China was more moderate, at 1.9 per cent. The US saw a 4.4 per cent growth over its 2019 expenditure. The United States’ military spending was 3.7 per cent of its GDP while the corresponding numbers for China and India were 1.7 per cent and 2.9 per cent respectively. From 2011 to 2020, American military expenditure dropped by 10 per cent, but China saw a 76 per cent growth while India’s military spending grew by 34 per cent.

It mentioned that the “2.6 per cent increase in world military spending came in a year” when the global GDP shrank by 4.4 per cent (October 2020 projection by the International Monetary Fund), “largely due to the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The only way to reduce defence expenditure globally is to check China’s expansionist policy. China’s coronavirus mask diplomacy has given way to bare-knuckled geopolitical fistfights with a growing array of its neighbours. In the past few months alone, it clashed with India in one of the worst border flare-ups in decades, escalated standoffs with Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea, pressured Taiwan with night time drills in the Taiwan Strait, and threatened Australia with boycotts of wine, beef, barley, and Chinese students.

Beijing’s blatant aggressiveness is accelerating long-standing debates about the underlying costs of reliance on China and spurring support for closer coordination between other Indo-Pacific partners. The governments of India, Japan, Malaysia, and Australia have all taken steps to reduce their economic exposure to Beijing, exploring new efforts to restrict foreign investment rules or shift manufacturing capabilities away from the Chinese mainland. India and Australia recently inked a new military logistics agreement at the “virtual summit” between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with a similar agreement between Delhi and Tokyo likely to follow. In spite of Beijing’s objections, many regional governments have praised Taiwan’s highly successful COVID-19 response and offered support for restoring its observer status in the World Health Assembly. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States is growing stronger and even expanding—with a new “Indo-Pacific Coordination Group” that involves weekly calls between these countries as well as New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam.

If crises and wars tend to be the crucibles in which new orders and institutions are forged, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to be no exception—it may be remaking the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. The ongoing crisis seems to have imbued countries in the region with a new seriousness of purpose about the risks of a slow slide toward Chinese hegemony.