Paper Tiger? Think Again.

On April 25, David Kang argued in Foreign Policy that the rest of Asia has not been matching China’s growth in their military capabilities, measured by the share of gross domestic product (GDP) dedicated to military spending.

Kang should be commended for making a serious effort at assessing the empirical reality in Asia, especially as rhetoric heats up on the Korean peninsula and claims about China’s military ambitions become common wisdom. Nevertheless, there are a few reasons to doubt Kang’s analysis. Using the same dataset as Kang (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s military expenditure database), I suggest that the evidence that the rest of Asia (and certain countries in particular) are not matching China’s military spending is not as clear-cut as Kang suggests.

The first issue at hand is: does military expenditure as a share of GDP accurately reflect a government’s worries about external aggression? After all, military budgets are not set solely according to specific threats from other states. Geography, territory, and population matter too. Hypothetically, Vietnam would be able to control its coastline and exclusive economic zone with a 100-ship navy better than China would, since China’s coast is around 4.5 times longer than Vietnam’s. Armed forces also monitor borders and conduct disaster relief operations. For all these reasons (and more) we should expect China to spend more of its economy on its military.

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