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China’s government has announced that it will increase its defense spending by 11.2 percent in 2012. This is actually slightly less than last year’s increase, which was above 12 percent, but it is the eighteenth time over the past two decades that China’s defense budget has been expanded by 10 percent or more. And this only represents what is being acknowledged publicly – like most powerful nations, China also has a large secret defense budget that we know very little about.
Of course it must be acknowledged that China’s expenditures on defense were quite low before the 1990s, when this expansion started, and even now their official military budget is only about one-fifth as great as that of the United States (approximately US $100 billion in comparison to our over $500 billion). But this level of spending – which shows no signs of abating any time soon – clearly represents a significant investment on the part of China’s decision makers, who obviously must be anticipating some kind of trouble in the years ahead.
Analyzing the Numbers
Based on where they are planning to spend their money, China’s defense establishment appears to have three clearly identifiable goals in mind – expanding the country’s air force, modernizing its navy, and developing a significant presence in space. All of these things relate to greater mobility, which would seem to suggest that China does not fear invasion or attack but instead is preparing to defend its interests in other parts of the world. In recent years China has had a series of maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and defense analysts speculate that the focus on improved naval and airpower may be designed to increase the country’s leverage in those regions. There is no doubt that concerns over piracy also plays some role in the planned naval expansion, as China already deploys ships in nearby waters to protect its merchant vessels from roving marauders. Establishing a greater anti-piracy presence in the Indian Ocean is one of the country’s stated goals, and given China’s history of thorny relations with India, this action could certainly cause a heightening of tensions.
China has made no secret of the fact that they have great ambitions in outer space. They have stated that they hope to put a new permanent space station in orbit and a man on the moon sometime before the end of this decade, and their interest in space-based reconnaissance for defense coordinates well with this plan for an aggressive civilian program. Thanks at least partly to US inaction in this area, some analysts believe China could become the dominant global power in space in just a few short years time. From a purely defensive viewpoint, holding the highest ground always confers a significant tactical advantage, and this is why the space race between the US and the Soviets during the Cold War turned out to be such a spirited contest. Perhaps Chinese ambitions in this area will spur the US into action, but the recent reaction to Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that the US build a base on the moon so as not to cede space to the Chinese would seem to suggest that big thinking is not currently in vogue in our nation’s capital.
But the Chinese are thinking big in everything these days, and this no doubt explains at least in part their desire to increase their defense capacity. There is a certain amount of prestige that goes along with being a global military superpower, and for a nation that is already gaining recognition as an exploding economic superpower, such a prospect is surely attractive. It is worth noting that nothing the Chinese have been doing here is out of line with the overall state of their economy – their official defense budget represents just 1.3 percent of their GDP, and this percentage has not changed much in recent years despite the constant increases in total dollar invested. They can afford it because their economy allows them to afford it, in other words; there is no palpable sense of desperation associated with these Chinese initiatives, and they have not been forced to make any domestic sacrifices in order to pursue their defense-related upgrades.
The preceding analysis represents good, solid conventional thinking on this issue. But of course, there is always more to the story than this, because conventional wisdom as it is commonly passed along through the mainstream media filter is always heavily edited in order to keep people in the dark about what is really going on. ‘Realpolitik’ in our world always manifests as practical considerations ruthlessly pursued, and we must keep this in mind when we attempt to discern the true motivations for China’s sudden desire to expand its defense capability to superpower levels, even though they face absolutely no threat of attack from any other nation.
In reality, what is happening in this particular instance is not hard to understand at all. As is the case with so much else going on in this world, China’s ambitious military initiatives are really all about securing access to the world’s most valuable commodity – oil.
The Race is On
China’s impressive economic growth would not have been possible without reliance on the relatively cheap energy provided by oil and other fossil fuels. But like most other nations, China does not have nearly enough domestic supplies to meet their requirements for oil, so they must rely on foreign imports to satisfy the majority of their domestic needs. Chinese demand for oil is already large, but its insatiable appetite for this essential product, which has been driving the world’s economic development for more than a century, is expected to grow exponentially in the very immediate future.
How exponentially? Between 2000 and 2010, China’s annual bill for imported oil averaged about $66 billion per year. But in 2012, the International Energy Association predicts that this number will jump to $251 billion per year, and long-term forecasts estimate that China’s bill for imported oil could reach an astronomical $500 billion per year by as early as 2020. And if the advocates of the peak oil hypothesis are correct, this may all be happening at a time when world supplies of this precious resource are actually becoming increasingly scarce.
Even if peak oil is not correct, however, there is no doubt that China, like every other nation on the planet, needs to have access to whatever oil is available out there, whether it be in the Middle East, in South America, in Africa, or in any place else in the world where it can be developed and sold on the world market. China has been reaching out everywhere to make deals with foreign oil companies and governments in oil-rich states, and this, of course, is bringing them into direct competition with western nations; most especially, it is bringing them into competition with the United States, which also hopes to secure access to all of the oil it will need to power its economy in the decades ahead.
An all-out battle for control of the world’s oil supplies could be coming in the not-too-distant future, and China’s determination to build up its defense capacity is based on its realization that it could be left in the dust unless it is fully prepared to take strong action to protect its interests. The coming resource conflicts will most likely be proxy wars, similar to the ones that were fought between East and West during the Cold War in what were referred to at the time as “third world” countries. But if the peak oil hypothesis has any validity at all, a final conflagration over the world’s last remaining fossil fuel reserves could be where everything is ultimately leading. Even though the United States still spends five times as much on defense as China and would be unlikely to lose such a conflict outright, the destruction associated with this kind of war could literally be the end of everything for everybody.
World War III and the Future of the Earth
The dramatic expansion of China’s defense budget is alarming, especially their interest in conquering the high ground of outer space. But the threat is not the same as it was during the Cold War era, when the two superpowers really were bitter rivals who each at various times may have been convinced the world would be a better place if the other were wiped off the map. Now, the economies of Far East and West are inextricably intertwined, and a massive world war would not be in anyone’s interest, no matter how insane the calculations. But given how dependent the economies of all the world’s nations have become on fossil fuels, serious shortages could force every nation on earth to the breaking point. China’s determination to increase its military might should not be taken as a sign that war is imminent, but it is a harbinger of what could be coming, and seen from this perspective it represents a truly ominous warning indeed.