Last week the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) released its annual report on military spending worldwide. It said total world military expenditure rose to $1,686 billion in 2016, an increase of 0.4 per cent in real terms from 2015. SIPRI's analysis shows military spending in North America witnessed its first annual increase since 2010, while spending in Western Europe grew for the second consecutive year. US military spending grew by 1.7 per cent between 2015 and 2016 to $611 billion, China by 5.4 per cent to $215 billion, Russia by 5.9 per cent in 2016 to $69.2 billion while India's military expenditure grew by 8.5 per cent in 2016 to $55.9 billion, making it the fifth largest spender. The figures quoted above are instructive for two reasons: One, they demonstrate that nations continue to arm themselves because threats of conflicts and wars have not receded. And two, new hotspots are emerging around the globe that requires big powers to spend more on the military. For instance, military expenditure in Western Europe rose for the second consecutive year and was up by 2.6 per cent in 2016. Italy recorded the most notable increase, with spending rising by 11 per cent between 2015 and 2016.
The countries with the largest relative increases in military spending between 2015 and 2016 are in Central Europe. Then there is Asia and Oceania where military expenditure rose by 4.6 per cent in 2016. Spending levels are clearly related to the many tensions in the region such as over territorial rights in the South China Sea and Beijing's expansionist drive which is forcing its neighbours and rivals to step up defence spending to boost their capabilities. So why are nations spending more on their military when they should be battling disease, hunger and poverty on priority? To begin with, the uni-polar world order that had briefly emerged at the end of the Cold War-with the United States as the sole hegemon-is a thing of the past. As American power has declined over the past decade (thanks to two enervating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 economic crisis), countries like China and a newly-aggressive Russia are stirring the pot, making the prospect of a major conflict an imminent possibility. Looking back on the past quarter century one finds that the Gulf war, Western intervention in the former Yugoslavia, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and more recently in Libya, Mali, Ukraine, Yemen and Syria, have kept troops busy across the world.
As the centre of gravity has shifted decisively to Asia — to Indo-Pacific, to be more precise — the established world order and its seemingly stable alliances are coming under a big strain increasing the dangers of the big war. Just look around and there's tension right across the globe. Moving from East to West, the unstable Korean peninsula with increasingly belligerent North Korea could perhaps be the world's most dangerous hotspot; the on-going disputes over sovereignty issues in South China Sea and China's disregard for international norms; the rising tension between India and China on a variety of issues with Pakistan thrown in as the toxic third factor between Delhi and Beijing; a collapsing Afghanistan (despite a 15 year long Global War on Terror), the Syrian quagmire and increasing tension in Europe, not the least because of Russia's aggressive designs, you name a region and there's an inherent danger of the world getting enveloped in a terrifying conflict. Then there is the serious competition in cyberspace that could escalate to an unmanageable conflict especially in view of the 'success' of Russian efforts to intervene in the US Presidential election, or the ongoing Chinese efforts to steal intellectual property and technology from US companies. Specialist analysts say if China, Russia, or other actors come to believe that they can attack the US without fear of response, they may end up pushing the US government into costly responses that could create an unfortunate escalatory spiral.
But the mostly likely scenario where Russia and America may accidentally collide and spark off an unintended conflict is because of their involvement in the war in Syria has created a situation where the two nations' planes are reportedly flying dangerously close to each other on bombing runs. Or for that matter if the hermetic North Korean leader-he currently has only one backer in China — has one of his fits of irrationality which sees him launch a nuclear missile aimed at either South Korea, Japan or the United States, escalation is not far from reality. In the longer run, the inherent security that both China and Moscow suffer vis-a-vis a more democratic world order, may lead to an irreversible conflict. Strategic Analyst Robert Kagan has written: "China and Russia are classic revisionist powers. Although both have never enjoyed greater security from foreign powers than they do today–Russia from its traditional enemies to the west, China from its traditional enemy in the east – they are dissatisfied with the current global configuration of power. Both seek to restore the hegemonic dominance they once enjoyed in their respective regions. For China, that means dominance of East Asia, with countries like Japan, South Korea, and the nations of Southeast Asia both acquiescing to Beijing's will and acting in conformity with China's strategic, economic, and political preferences. That includes American influence withdrawn to the eastern Pacific, behind the Hawaiian Islands.
For Russia, it means hegemonic influence in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which Moscow has traditionally regarded as either part of its empire or part of its sphere of influence. Both Beijing and Moscow seek to redress what they regard as an unfair distribution of power, influence, and honour in the U.S.-led post-war global order." Whatever the reason, the fact is the world has never looked as close to a catastrophic conflict than ever in the past quarter of a century mainly because of concurrent decline of American power and rise of China that is willing to flex its muscle under President Xi Jinping. History is witness to such developments before, notably just before World War II. Rising power(s) nurse a grievance against existing powerhouses and seek concessions from them. When those perceived or real grievances are not redressed, rising powers rebel and are seen to be spoiling for a fight. Japan and Germany just prior to World War II are prime examples. In the current situation, China wants what it sees as its rightful place and Russia, still smarting from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is willing join the fight. That said, another big conflict–I would still hesitate to call it World War III–may or may not happen in a hurry but the world surely is on the edge right now.
(The author is a senior strategic affairs analyst, author and media trainer)...