The past several years have seen a lot of movement in countries’ military budgets. Beginning in October 2016 with Russia’s $10 billion budgetary swap of welfare for warfare spending, China’s announcement of a $10 billion increase in its military spending and, more recently, the United States’ proposed $54 billion increase to its defense budget, this trend appears to have caught fire.
The U.S. military budget, for example, remains at a long-term low of about 16 percent of its government expenditures, down significantly from the 25 percent spending during the height of the Cold War, according to the World Bank. The current amount of annual spending of $581 billion allows the U.S. to maintain a network of global military commitments in East Asia, Western Europe, and North America equivalent to what it held during the Cold War. In effect, the United States has kept up its global presence, even with less money allotted to do so.
China’s story differs. As a country, it also devotes about 16 percent of its government spending to the military, but this only translates into $155 billion in practice, making it the world’s third-most powerful military, according to Global Firepower. Over time, however, China’s spending has steadily risen, with defense budget increases each year, especially as the country expands its claims in the South China Sea.
Finally, Russia allocates 16 percent of its budget on defense, amounting to $46 billion to sustain the world’s second-greatest military, according to Global Firepower. Of the three countries, Russia spends the greatest proportion of its GDP on military, bordering on 4.5 percent. This too has seen increases in recent years as Russia has intervened in Syria and Ukraine.
While these changes do not clearly point to an upcoming period of open conflict, they do tell a story of increasing great power rivalries, as the United States, Russia, and China each allocate around 16 percent of their budgets to their militaries. Though not cause for immediate alarm, these increases—without concurrent funding for diplomacy—may make these investments in security futile.