World military spending reached a record $1,738 billion in 2011 — an increase of $138 billion over the previous year. The United States accounted for 41 percent of that, or $711 billion.
Some news reports have emphasized that, from the standpoint of reducing reliance on armed might, this actually represents progress. After all, the increase in “real” global military spending — that is, expenditures after corrections for inflation and exchange rates — was only 0.3 percent. And this contrasts with substantially larger increases in the preceding thirteen years.
But why are military expenditures continuing to increase — indeed, why aren’t they substantially decreasing — given the governmental austerity measures of recent years? Amid the economic crisis that began in late 2008 (and which continues to the present day), most governments have been cutting back their spending dramatically on education, health care, housing, parks, and other vital social services. However, there have not been corresponding cuts in their military budgets.
Americans, particularly, might seek to understand why in this context U.S. military spending has not been significantly decreased, instead of being raised by $13 billion — admittedly a “real dollar” decrease of 1.2 percent, but hardly one commensurate with Washington’s wholesale slashing of social spending. Yes, military expenditures by China and Russia increased in 2011. And in “real” terms, too. But, even so, their military strength hardly rivals that of the United States. Indeed, the United States spent about five times as much as China (the world’s #2 military power) and ten times as much as Russia (the world’s #3 military power) on its military forces during 2011. Furthermore, when U.S. allies like Britain, France, Germany, and Japan are factored in, it is clear that the vast bulk of world military expenditures are made by the United States and its military allies.
China’s economic progress is especially impressive when matched against historical parallels. Between 1870 and 1900, America enjoyed unprecedented industrial expansion, such that even Karl Marx and his followers began to doubt that a Communist revolution would be necessary or even possible in a country whose people were achieving such widely shared prosperity through capitalistic expansion. During those 30 years America’s real per capita income grew by 100 percent. But over the last 30 years, real per capita income in China has grown by more than 1,300 percent.
Over the last decade alone, China quadrupled its industrial output, which is now comparable to that of the U.S. In the crucial sector of automobiles, China raised its production ninefold, from 2 million cars in 2000 to 18 million in 2010, a figure now greater than the combined totals for America and Japan. China accounted for fully 85 percent of the total world increase in auto manufacturing during that decade.
It is true that many of China’s highest-tech exports are more apparent than real. Nearly all Apple’s iPhones and iPads come from China, but this is largely due to the use of cheap Chinese labor for final assembly, with just 4 percent of the value added in those world-leading items being Chinese. This distorts Chinese trade statistics, leading to unnecessary friction. However, some high-tech China exports are indeed fully Chinese, notably those of Huawei, which now ranks alongside Sweden’s Ericsson as one of the world’s two leading telecommunications manufacturers, while once powerful North American competitors such Lucent-Alcatel and Nortel have fallen into steep decline or even bankruptcy. And although America originally pioneered the Human Genome Project, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) today probably stands as the world leader in that enormously important emerging scientific field.
China’s recent rise should hardly surprise us. For most of the last 3,000 years, China together with the Mediterranean world and its adjoining European peninsula have constituted the two greatest world centers of technological and economic progress. During the 13th century, Marco Polo traveled from his native Venice to the Chinese Empire and described the latter as vastly wealthier and more advanced than any European country. As late as the 18th century, many leading European philosophers such as Voltaire often looked to Chinese society as an intellectual exemplar, while both the British and the Prussians used the Chinese mandarinate as their model for establishing a meritocratic civil service based on competitive examinations.