The Guardian is doing a series on China this week, some of which is quite interesting – the article on Gansu’s solar revolution is quite fascinating to someone (i.e. me) who visited that province 10 years ago and saw nothing but Yak herders, for example. However, in amongst the interesting cultural discussion there is the usual western panic at the prospect of China’s military growth, with an article on its foreign policy declaring breathlessly

China’s military still lags far behind the US, but its official military budget has risen from $14.6bn to $106bn in 12 years – and many believe the true level of spending is far higher.

This kind of statement isn’t limited to the Guardian – newspapers all over Australia, the US and the UK like to point to this 7-fold increase in the military budget and talk about what it signifies. I think it signifies nothing. In fact, the same day this article was written the Guardian put up one of their bravely-named “datablogs” about Chinese GDP, and showed us that 12 years ago it was 390 billion US$, while now it is 6,990 billion US$. So military spending has dropped from 3.7% of GDP to 1.5% of GDP. Cause to worry?

China’s inflation in the early 1990s was running at up to 20% per year, and it’s easy to see that $14.6bn was going to devalue rapidly. In fact, applying the cpi inflation figures to China’s 1990 spending, we see that just to keep up with inflation military spending today would need to be 37 billion US$. So the true increase in spending is not 7-fold at all, but a maximum of 3-fold. In terms of absolute growth it’s a bit scary, but in terms of proportion of GDP China has been de-militarizing rapidly. And a lot of the spending has been catch up anyway.

So let’s compare China’s geo-strategic situation with the USA, which according to wikipedia had a 2011 budget of 1 trillion US$ – 10 times that of China, and 7.7% of its GDP. The USA shares land borders with two democratic, stable states, one of which has some instability on its border. It has no immediate regional rivals bar Cuba, and its nearest geopolitical rivals are an ocean away. There are no hostile military occupations by geopolitical rivals in nations that share a land border with it or its neighbours. By contrast, China:

  • Shares a border with Russia (enough said!)
  • Shares a border with Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a military base with one of its geopolitical rivals (the USA)
  • Shares a (sliver of) border with Afghanistan, a failed state currently occupied by a geopolitical rival
  • Shares a border with India, which (I think) has territorial claims on parts of China
  • Shares borders with Myanmar and North Korea, both failed or failing autocratic states
  • Is separated by a narrow sea lane from its nearest regional rival, Japan, which has a large and dangerous military and a history of aggressive war against China
  • Depends for trade on a series of sea-ways (e.g. the straits of Malacca) that are known to be subject to piracy
  • Has territorial claims on a nation that its main geopolitical rival is pledged to protect

Plus of course that geo-political rival maintains a significant military force in the Pacific and in neighbouring nations (e.g. Japan and Korea). Yet, China’s defense spending has declined as a percentage of GDP and has increased in absolute terms only three-fold over the past 12 years.

This makes China seem very far from a belligerent power, and if anything the very model of restraint and good neighbourliness. If the USA, France or Britain were subject to the kind of geopolitical situation China faces, would they be funding their military at these rates, or gearing up for a massive expansion? So why do newspapers bother with this simplistic pap about China?