What does this tell about the West?

The Carnegie Endowment has a study about China and the usual suspects for a clash with China.

NextBigFuture offered this table as a summary for their scenarios:

H/T Nextbigfuture,
graphic should enlarge if clicked
Have a look at the line with "Defense spending as % of GDP". The "aggressive ultranationalism" scenario is the one with more than 2%.

source: CIA World Factbook
I created this diagram with data from the CIA World Factbook, showing only developed countries with military ("defense") spending of more than 2 %. Omitted are countries with a domestic civil war or other unique national defence challenges (Turkey, Israel). Also omitted are European countries which enacted drastic cuts (Greece, Portugal). I did not regard some Central Asian former USSR countries as developed countries. The U.S. military spending has also taken a drastic cut, but is no doubt still above 3% GDP.

Let's think about the de facto allegation that more than 2% GDP military spending would indicate aggressive ultranationalism in the case of China.

There are two major way of looking at national defense requirements; either you assume that the difference between wealthy and very wealthy does change the actual need (not "want") for military capabilities or it doesn't. %GDP as a metric has the advantage that the increase of personnel and other costs by the increased GDP should not show up in this metric.

Now if you believe that a bigger economy does require more military spending - and this seems to be the position of the crowd that thinks military spending should be oriented at a %GDP figure - then you should agree that the Chinese need to raise their military power as their economy grows. And this would not necessarily indicate any tilt towards aggressiveness. 
The second graphic can be read as indicating that more than 2% GDP military spending is hardly an indicator for "aggressive ultranationalism".

Or maybe you think the military spending needs for national security do not depend (much) on the country's economic power. Well, in this case one ought to ask how much spending they need to defend themselves. Judging by the military spending of the countries threatening China and its lack of useful allies, one could this way easily justify the Chinese spending a third of world-wide military spending. (They have much less.)

Furthermore, the Chinese do have a LOT of maritime overseas trade. They (their wealth) are dependent on imports and exports, including energy imports. Judging by how Westerners talk about military "needs", the Chinese can easily claim their "need" of dominating the western Pacific Ocean and the northern Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. That's about the level of ambition I read in American and British, at times even Australian or German, sources.

This is of course ludicrous. We cannot provide great security to our maritime trade while they provide great security to theirs - that is unless there is absoluteley no conflict potential between 'the West' and China, or unless we cooperate* to provide security to maritime trade of Westerners and Chinese.

This goes at the heart of the problem of some more militarily ambitious Western countries: They strive for perfect security (expressed by their intolerance for even minor threats). Perfect security for one power or bloc means perfect insecurity or dependence for everyone else, of course.

I suppose this is a kind of overambition and intellectual laziness that came up when the Soviet Union disappeared. Previously, almost everybody was aware that perfect security is an aim only for fools. Ambitions were more modest. That's kind of why the West did not spend that terribly much more on the military before 1990 than today (related). There was a huge, impressive adversary bloc - but our military spending was modest. Today there's just a list of ridiculous bogeymen - and we still spend a lot.

I suppose China has in part legitimate national security concerns and as a great power and generally a power representing more than a fifth of mankind it's understandable that they don't want their maritime trade 'secured' by another not very much friendly great power.
Two per cent GDP military spending in the long run would hardly signify aggressive ultranationalism. I guesstimate that more than about six per cent would signal a commitment to military strength that would justify much concern in North America and Europe.

Many people are nowadays in the business of building up China as the next huge bogeyman, to secure a steady and rising supply of money into the military-industrial complex. There is very little money to be earned by playing down China as a threat or rival, leading to an almost inevitable bias of the voices heard on the topic.

The Carnegie Endowment study I mentioned is actually quite uninteresting to me. It's just an example for the general attitude and hypocrisy.
Western countries can supposedly bully other countries at will and apply measures out of proportion, while in the case of China even quite defensive military power such as what's known as the DF-21D "anti-access" missile gets talked up as if it was aggressive.**
In fact, China does so far very little of significance beyond its own region. They don't have a military port in the Atlantic or regular carrier patrols along the Europe-US maritime trade route, for example.

I ask my readers to run a hypocrisy check every time they read about some supposed aggressive, non-allied power. Such as China, Iran, maybe in the future Russia again, and in the past Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Remember the most aggressive stances that are deemed fine for Western powers, and compare them to what the supposedly evil foreigners actually did. Such as; when did China bomb some other country recently, and when did Iran invade another country the last time?***


*: Such as adding credibility to the Charter of the United Nation's intolerance for aggressive bilateral behaviour instead of undermining it!?
**: These "anti-access" systems may deny U.S. carrier battlegroups access to places from where they could launch air strikes at China effectively.
***: I didn't find later examples than 1979 and  1738, respectively.


  1. Minor nitpick, but Australia does not spend anywhere near that level of GDP on defence. Spending level over the last few years was around 1.7% and due to further cuts now sits at ca 1.5%, marginally above that of Germany. In fact the return to 2% GDP-spending on defence is a minor pledge of both majority parties in their current election campaigns (the Coalition has mentioned 3% in the past, but thats completely delusional).

    Those numbers may come from a few of the years under Howard, but even then that level of spending was exceptional, not the norm.

    1. Such statistics are always tricky.
      I prefer to simply use CIA World Factbook data when I want to avoid accusations that the data is from an anti-Western source.