The Hegemon’s Prerogative

Chris Waugh makes the following observation about global defense spending figures compiled by SIPRI:

America wins with a whopping 47.77%, UK comes a very, very, very distant second with 4.83%, France third with 4.61%, then 4.2% followed by China on 4.1%. Of course, these figures are not presented in numerical order, and there could be other countries that should be inserted in the gaps, but still: Do you see why I don’t take any American complaints about China’s defence spending even remotely seriously? Do you see why such complaints send my hypocrisy detector way off the scale and into rehab?

Chris, with all due respect, is both right and wrong in this analysis.

Firstly, America does spend too much money on national defense, roughly $420 billion in FY 2007, a number sure to rise in 2008, especially when taking into account defense supplemental spending, extra funds approved by Congress during the course of the year. The budget features a lot of bloat, especially in contracting and operations, and for years American Congressmen have made Pentagon spending a piggybank for pet projects.

What are Americans buying with their $400+ billion? While it’s fashionable to think that all of the Pentagon budget goes towards weapon systems, operations and maintenance is the biggest single chunk of the US defense budget, and when combined with combat pay expenses and procurement expenses to replace used equipment, it easily approached $200 billion — roughly half — of the 2007 defense budget. The War on Terror plus the Iraq and Afghan conflicts are responsible for most of the operations budget, and as most other nations have declined to deploy as many forces as the US, their operations budgets are noticeably smaller, which in turn makes the US defense budget loom that much bigger over the rest of the world.

To be fair, we cannot really compare the Chinese peacetime defense budget to the US wartime budget. But if we took most of operations and maintenance off the table, America is still spending over $220 billion a year, about five times more than the 2007 SIPRI estimate for China’s defense budget, $41 billion, and roughly four times China’s $60 billion budget for 2008. This still seems like a massive disparity, but let’s consider how many military theaters China and the US are active in, respectively. China’s primary theater of operations is Asia, with a sprinkling of deployments to protect Chinese interests in Africa. The US, conversely, has forces deployed globally, with major operations in the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. If we did some ugly math and divided the US’ spending by 5 to account for each theater of operations, then the US would be spending roughly the same amount per theater as the Chinese are spending in a single theater.* And for reasons I will explain, the strategic scope of a country’s operations matter when evaluating their defense budgets.

Why do American policymakers get uppity about a 19 percent hike in China’s disclosed defense budget?** Because US policy, post-WWII, has always been to be the militarily dominant power in as many theaters as possible. NATO was used to bolster the US presence in Europe and overpower the Soviets, while the US mostly went it alone — with some British help — in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, while relying on Japan and South Korea for assistance and strategic positioning in East Asia (a role that may ironically be filled by Vietnam in the future). In more recent years, the Pentagon has downgraded its strategic plans from the ability to fight two major theater wars to fighting one major theater war plus a small conflict — i.e. Iraq and Afghanistan — but there’s always been a demand for enough materiel and troops to respond to any crisis, anywhere. From the perspective of the political scientist, this is the way the US performs the role of “offshore balancer” — the foreign power strong enough to prevent the outbreak of regional wars or to limit their spread. Others will see the US behaving as an imperial power, and there is merit to this argument as well, though in function the US is less a “dictatress to the world” than a global magistrate.

Returning to the main point, China is quickly achieving parity with the US in Asia, and if China continues to grow its defense budget at the current rate, then the US runs the risk of being outmaneuvered and outgunned in this corner of the world. If you are American, or a conservative-minded Japanese, South Korean, or even a nationalist Vietnamese, the prospect of China ascendant in Asia may prove troubling. If you are Russian, then you’re happy to see America’s designs thwarted in the short term but might worry about the security of the Russian Far East in the long run. If you are a center-left European, you are happy to see America begin to step down from the hegemonic stage, though you fear what would happen if America similarly disengaged from NATO. But if you’re like most people around the world, you probably think the US shouldn’t be a hegemon in the first place, so you’re likely to accuse the US of hypocrisy for demanding that China justify its defense spending increases.

Not surprisingly, I find myself in the first category of thinkers, though I have hope that economic links and America’s technological edge will enable a peaceful rise of China. I understand where critics like Chris are coming from, but it’s the hegemon’s prerogative to be jealous of its power. The US has a lot invested in the status quo, and she will not gently accede to a regional challenger unless China proves that it is less interested in upsetting the balance than in preserving the system for mutual benefit.

* Few would assert that the Chinese have designs on a global military empire, but all signs point to a Chinese desire to be the regional hegemon of Asia.

** Always bear in mind that this is the budget we know about and probably not the entire budget.

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One thought on “The Hegemon’s Prerogative

  1. Good thing that was just a throwaway comment and I wasn’t actually trying to debate anything… Actually, I did consider going into more detail and looking at things like the obvious reasons for America’s defence budget to be so high (and of course it’s not all being spent on fancy new weapons systems. Feeding soldiers is far more important), or stating that I don’t consider China’s position to be any more or less legitimate, but I was too lazy.

    But what gets to me is that America is developing new weapons systems and is moving to preserve its privilege, just as China is modernising its military and moving to what it sees as its rightful place as East Asian hegemon. Naturally, America sees itself as the goody, and therefore in the right, and China has the same attitude, but I don’t see a difference. The big lesson I draw from my country’s history is that all empires are evil (even if they’re not all that imperial, really, like America) and should all be kept at arm’s length.

    But no, I don’t think we should cut the extra operational costs of Iraq and Afghanistan when comparing China and America. Sorry, but those two wars only increase the hypocrisy of American complaints (although I was generally supportive of Afghanistan at first- supportive but nervous, if that makes sense). China is not threatening any country outside its internationally recognised borders (not looking for any arguments about certain disputed territories here), let alone invading on dubious pretexts. Well, I suppose if we look along the Himalayas, China doesn’t look so squeaky clean, and I still can’t figure out why the world has forgotten China’s place in those little South Asian scraps….

    Anyway, I certainly don’t begrudge any country the modernisation of its military- except when it’s WMD (as America under Bush has at least talked about doing) or the militarisation of areas the world has agreed to keep demilitarised- space and the Antarctic, for example.

    Anyway, nice analysis, good points, and actually, I can understand the American point of view.

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