As we enter another round of defense cuts, the politicians and commentators comfort the world with the statement that the US spends more than the rest of the world combined on defense. But the data over time tells another story. It tells us that we are following in the dangerous game of the 1930’s appeasement of Hitler.
The first chart below shows a familiar story. At some point in the coming decade or two the Chinese economy will pass the US economy in share of global gross domestic product. It is not a new story.
The second chart shows what is supposed to be a comforting story. The US consistently spends around 4% of GDP on defense and the Chinese only 2% of GDP. It is comforting, until you put the two charts together.
I have assumed that US and Chinese military expenditures remain the same at 4% and 2% respectively of GDP. Then multiplying that percentage times the GDP percentage at 2011, 2030, and 2060 you can chart out the dramatic increase in Chinese spending and the relative falling of US spending.
It is a truly sobering picture. Sometime in the decade following 2020 the Chinese military will spend at least as much as the US on defense. By 2060 the Chinese will spend 20% more on defense than the US.
And that assumes as China rapidly develops and increases in national wealth that it keeps defense expenditures at 2% of GDP. Wealthier nations, should they choose, can spend far more. That is precisely the US history since World War II. As the US national wealth increased it could afford 4% to 7% annual GDP spending on defense. China could make the same decision in the coming fifty years. At that point the US would spend half or less than half of the Chinese on defense.
Instead of focusing on military spending designed to deter the Chinese threat, the US is off debating interventions in the minor backwaters of the Middle East and cutting military spending. US doctrine for years spent money on defense to deter military conflict. Turning away from deterrence to unilateral disarmament invites Chinese militarism. It incents the worst elements of the Chinese Communist Party.
What should Washington and it allies pursue as an alternative to Chinese military dominance?
As is often repeated but never acted upon, the US must have dramatic increased economic growth. Unless we can bend the disparity in growth, the Chinese economic base will simply outstrip our ability to fund our military. We must have growth.
The United States must call in its allies and reverse their dramatic cuts in defense spending. Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the other US allies with an actual track record of fighting for freedom all spend at or less than 2% on their military. This simply cannot continue. Without their own stronger efforts the US can no longer afford to shield them.
The most critical and radical challenge is to find a new ally or allies in the emerging democracies with rapid economic growth. India with all its problems is an obvious possibility. Indian troops in large measure retook Burma and saved Eastern India from the Japanese in World War II. It has the potential for the type of economic growth to balance against China.
I also have hopes that the promise of Chinese democracy from Tiananmen Square will revive as the economy expands. But we cannot count upon it.
The 1930s appeasers of Hitler believed they faced two fundamentals. In the midst of the Depression Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain as successive prime ministers in Britain did not believe they could afford rearmament, so the pursued disarmament. They also looked at Germany in the 1930s and took comfort in British and French military superiority.
When even the appeasers realized they must rearm and face Hitler, the countries they had led were so far behind in the armament race they could no longer compete. Only the might of US industrial expansion made possible the sacrifice that lead to Hitler’s defeat. If the third graph becomes reality, it dictates we must act now to avoid an appeaser’s fate.