Time to match the dragon’s firepower

India must boost its defence budget to keep pace with China’s military spends

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak,” said Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military strategist 2,500 years ago. This is what China and India seem to have done while bringing an end to the two-month-long Doklam logjam.

Despite its relatively poor military capability as compared to that of China, India appeared stronger. And China relented and agreed to move back, perhaps keeping the enemy in deception of its actual might.

China has seen the highest growth in military spends in the world (118 per cent) during 2007-2016, as per SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) data. It was followed by Russia (87 per cent) and India (54 per cent).

And on the basis of absolute spends, with a military budget of $215 billion in 2016, it is next only to the US, while India is at a distant fifth position with a budget of $56 billion.

Widening gap

The India-China gap in military spends has widened significantly in the last decade. During 2007, China’s military budget was 2.4 times that of India. In 2016, it increased to 3.8 times.

In the last decade, China defence spends were about $1,500 billion as compared to $450 billion by India — or about 3.3 times more. Military strategists who look just at military spends as a per cent of GDP are perhaps missing the wood for the trees. This is because China’s military spends have remained consistent at 1.9 per cent of its GDP for most of the years as against a higher average of 2.6 per cent of GDP for India.

However, China’s relatively faster economic growth in the past decade, along with its bigger economy size, has given it the leeway to allocate more expenditure for military purposes in absolute terms.

Rand Corporation, the US-based global policy think-tank, projects that by 2025, China’s margin over India in defence spending is likely to continue or grow. By 2025, China’s defence spends are likely to be 2-4.5 times that of India, at 2009 constant dollar prices.

According to Global Firepower, a compiler of military statistics, India lags behind China on most fronts. China has 2,955 aircraft as against 2,102 with India. Its tank strength is 6,457 as against 4,426 for India. China has 68 submarines and 51 frigates as compared to 15 and 14 respectively for India.

However, India is ahead of China when it comes to towed artillery and strength of military personnel. China has 3.7 million military personnel as against 4.2 million for India.

Globally, military spends have been flattening since 2011, triggered by cut in spends by oil-exporting nations as well as the US. And in 2016, it saw a marginal increase of about 0.4 per cent Y-o-Y to $ 1,686 billion. During the period 2007-2016, global military spends were up by only 14 per cent. However, military spends increased in the East Asian region by 74 per cent, triggered by Chinese spends.

China today has about half of overall military budget in the Asian region. It is already resorting to sabre-rattling by browbeating its neighbours and indulging in various maritime disputes. It is claiming Senkaku islands in Japan in the East China Sea as well as several others in the South China Sea from South-East Asian countries. Moreover, the Asian region continues to be tense with North and South Korea remaining at loggerheads in the peninsula region as well as India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

Aiming for 3 per cent

India’s military spends have remained below 3 per cent of GDP for most of the years. However, during 1988-91 and 1999-2000, during the times of Gulf war and Kargil war, it spiked the defence budgets. However, soon thereafter, with the unleashing of economic reforms in the 90s, it reduced defence spends. From the level of 2.9 per cent of GDP that was spent on defence in 2009, it has plateaued to about 2.5 per cent of GDP.

A year back, the ex-defence minister Manohar Parikkar had spoken about earmarking 3 per cent of GDP for military spends, given the geo-political exigencies. Post Doklam issue, there is now a strong case for India to increase military spends to those levels. While the current government has been doing its best to improve the capital component of defence spends, it also needs to prop up the overall defence budgets despite the fiscal consequences.

As Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War says, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” India should be prepared for all eventualities.

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