LONDON and COLOGNE, Germany — The Chinese military’s buildup is increasingly focused on ferrying forces to faraway places, with new logistics capabilities coming online quickly, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The assessment is included in the think tank’s Military Balance 2021 report, an annual compendium of defense goings-on around the world, released Feb. 25. The focus on China’s growing logistical capabilities in the air and at sea comes after experts have long chronicled Beijing’s efforts to field modernized weaponry aimed to turn the country into a superpower.
For example, “China’s fleet support ships now number 12, up from seven in 2015, while increased numbers of Y-20 heavy transports mean that the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Air Force has effectively doubled its heavy air transport fleet in the last four years,” IISS researchers wrote in their report.
China maintains a military outpost in Djibouti that is seen by Western analysts as a key component of the country’s power-projection ambitions into the Indian Ocean.
Expanded support infrastructure on land, combined with the logistics tail needed to support big leaps, means more long-range Chinese deployments are in the offing, IISS researcher Nick Childs said during an online news conference Thursday.
The next significant step, he added, would be China’s ability to stage a carrier strike group deployment to the Indian Ocean.
“Beijing seems intent on achieving primacy in its littoral areas, and while China’s maritime paramilitary forces have taken the lead — and are using facilities on Chinese-occupied features in the Spratly Islands as forward-operating bases in the South China Sea — the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has maintained an ‘over-the-horizon’ presence,” the IISS report stated.
Meanwhile, China continued its upward defense spending trajectory in 2020, albeit at a somewhat slower pace: 5.2 percent last year, compared with 5.9 percent in 2019, according to the think tank. Still, Beijing’s nominal increase of $12 billion in 2020 was more than the plus-ups in all other Asian countries combined (excluding Russia).
While Asia accounted for almost 18 percent of total global defense spending a decade ago, by 2020 this had risen to 25 percent, IISS figures showed.
Worldwide defense spending amounted to $1.83 trillion last year, an increase of 3.9 percent over 2019, reaching a new high point despite the coronavirus pandemic, according to IISS analysts.
European countries kept their military spending uptick going in 2020, adding 2 percent over the previous year. The biggest spenders on the continent were the U.K with $61.5 billion, France with $55 billion, Germany with $51.3 billion and Italy with $29.3 billion.
“If these spending plans continue on their current trajectory, in 2021 Europe could be the region with the fastest growth in global defense spending,” the IISS analysts wrote.
The strong national U.K. budget figures for last year were reinforced at an industry level on Feb. 25, when BAE Systems — Europe’s largest defense and security company — reported a solid performance for 2020 with order intake, revenues and profits all up on the previous year, despite the challenges of COVID-19.
But the trend is my no means assured, said Fenella McGerty, a senior fellow for defense economics at IISS. She said the full economic effect of the coronavirus pandemic has yet to materialize, as governments are still crafting their budgets for future years.
For now, money spent on defense in Europe was largely already allocated to programs before the pandemic hit, McGerty said, and there appears to be a consensus by governments to avoid large-scale cuts, as in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
“The pandemic will affect global defense spending, though it will likely take until 2022-2023 for the full financial effect of government responses to start translating into defense budget cuts,” said John Chipman, the think tank’s director general.
Added McGerty: “The drive towards austerity, to slash spending, cannot be ignored.”
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.