East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report
LONDON (Reuters) - Western cuts and swiftly rising defense spending in emerging economies are redrawing the global strategic map, a leading think-tank said on Tuesday, with the danger of conflicts between states also rising.
In its annual Global Military Balance report, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said the shift in economic power was already beginning to have a real military effect and closing any strategic gap.
"Western states' defense budgets are under pressure and their military procurement is constrained," said IISS director general John Chipman. "But in other regions -- notably Asia and the Middle East -- military spending and arms acquisitions are booming. There is persuasive evidence that a global redistribution of military power is under way."
Asian Pacific nations particularly China were increasing defense spending by double digits annually, he said, with growing evidence Western states were losing their technological edge in areas such as stealth technology and cyber warfare.
Most estimates suggest Washington still accounts for roughly half of all global defense spending each year, much of it spent on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Estimates of Chinese defense spending vary wildly, with many analysts suspecting it dramatically underreports.
"HALF A GENERATION"
According to the report, the United States spent $693 billion on defense in 2010 -- 4.7 percent of its GDP -- compared to China's $76 billion (1.3 percent/GDP) and Britain's 57 billion dollars (2.5 percent/GDP).
Speaking to Reuters after the report launch, Chipman said if current trends were continued it would still take 15-20 years for China to achieve military parity with the U.S.
"We're talking about half a generation," he said. "The United States has always said it would never let another power get to parity so in the next few years it is going to have to make some very significant decisions on what it does."
In the shorter term, he said much of the equipment China was aiming to acquire such as the submarines and anti-ship missiles was designed to dent the dominance of U.S. aircraft carriers in nearby waters particularly the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing's military growth was itself driving other nearby Asian powers to ramp up their own purchases, he said, while worries over Iran coupled with strong oil revenues were driving similarly rapid expansion in Gulf military forces.
It was too soon to say whether the rash of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East would prompt authoritarian rulers to focus more on internal security threats, he said.
Exchanges of fire along the borders of Thailand and Cambodia as well as between North and South Korea showed that the risk of local state-on-state war was back on the map after a decade of focus on more fringe threats such as militancy, he said.
"It had become conventional wisdom bordering on cliche that interstate conflict was a thing of the past and now that's being called into question," he said.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)