/ 7 May 2024

The militarisation of geopolitics: New trends in global defence spending

Volunteer Medics Of Ukraine?s National Guard Brigade
With military aid totaling $35 billion, including substantial assistance from the USs, Ukraine's military expenditure reached about 91% of Russia's. (Photo by Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Global defence spending surged to an unprecedented $2.443 trillion last year, a significant 6.8% increase from the previous year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s latest report published on 22 April 22.

This reflects a world increasingly characterised by geopolitical tensions and security uncertainties. This surge, the most pronounced since 2009, depicts not only a quantitative increase in military investment but also deeper geopolitical shifts and strategic recalibrations among nations. 

This increase in military spending extends across all geographical regions, painting a worrisome picture of global security dynamics. For the first time in over a decade, military expenditure rose in all five regions identified by the Stockholm institute, with significant upticks observed in Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the Middle East. Central to this trend is the behaviour of major powers, with $1.321 trillion, the United States, China and Russia, whose combined military spending constitutes a substantial portion — 54% — of the global total. Despite varying regional dynamics and security concerns, these nations have prioritised bolstering their military capabilities, signalling a strategic commitment to assertiveness and deterrence.

This rise in military investment underscores the persistent drumbeat of global tension. The US has amplified its commitment to defence, with a staggering allocation of $886 billion for 2024, a contrast to the $618.7 billion of 2017 — an increase exceeding 40% in only seven years. The US grapples with the twin spectres of geopolitical rivalry and military modernisation, as justified by Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. His recent remarks highlight fortifying national defences in the face of an assertive China. The proposed increase in military expenditure aims to bolster US capabilities, particularly in the Asia-Pacific theatre, where tensions simmer and alliances are tested. 

Measures such as fortifying Guam and Hawaii reflect a strategic pivot towards deterring potential adversaries and preserving regional stability. Moreover, global hotspots, from the Russia-Ukraine standoff to the Gaza conflict, reflects the US’s entanglement in great power competition. Such complexities, coupled with pressures from influential interest groups, including the defence industry, is compelling the US administration to augment its military budget. The calculus of hegemony intertwines with the imperatives of security and strategic foresight in the American strategic intent. 

The geopolitical tensions are particularly pronounced in Eastern Europe, where Russia’s substantial increase in military spending, coupled with Ukraine’s efforts to narrow the spending gap through external assistance, denotes the heightened security dynamics in the region. The militarisation of the Ukraine-Russia border presents a significant flashpoint with implications for European security and broader geopolitical stability. Russia’s military spending surged by 24% to about $109 billion in 2023. Since annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia has increased its military expenditure by a staggering 57%. 

But, Ukraine, propelled by a spending surge of 51%, narrowed the spending gap with Russia. With military aid totaling $35 billion, including substantial assistance from the USs, Ukraine’s military expenditure reached about 91% of Russia’s. 

Within Nato, the disparity in military spending between the US and European allies raises questions about burden sharing and the alliance’s collective defence posture. While the US remains the primary spender, Europe’s increasing military expenditure reflects a shifting security calculus, driven in part by the ongoing war in Ukraine and evolving threat perceptions vis-à-vis Russia. The changing threat landscape is evident in the increasing allocation of GDP towards military expenditures, with the Nato benchmark of 2% now viewed more as a minimum standard rather than a distant goal.

Meanwhile, China, the world’s second-largest military spender, allocated an estimated $296 billion to its military in 2023. This marked the 29th consecutive year of increased military expenditure. China’s sustained military build-up has significant implications for regional security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. China’s rising military budget has obviously prompted neighbouring countries such as Japan and Taiwan to enhance their military capabilities, foreseeing potential conflict in the region. Japan, too, marches in lockstep, setting its 10th consecutive record with a defence budget of 7.95 trillion yen ($55.9 billion), registering a notable 16.5% rise from the previous year. 

These fiscal manoeuvres portend a disquieting symphony of militarisation. 

Amid the evolving geopolitical landscape, Japan confronts what it deems its most intricate security milieu since the conclusion of World War II. In its annual Diplomatic Bluebook, the country highlights the growing military “threats” emanating from China, North Korea and Russia. At the core of Tokyo’s strategic calculations lies “China’s assertive” military stance, perceived as the primary strategic challenge in the region. With Beijing’s rapid ascent, Japan finds itself participating in a contest for dominance in the Asia-Pacific sphere. Consequently, Japan is recalibrating its defence posture, departing from its traditional stance of self-defence to embrace a more assertive role. This shift is evident in Japan’s pursuit of enhanced offensive capabilities, marking a departure from its post-war pacifism. The uptick in military spending reflects Tokyo’s commitment to constitutional reforms aimed at fortifying its defence capabilities, signalling a decisive step toward ensuring regional stability amid mounting security problems.

Military spending in the Middle East surged by 9% to about $200 billion, solidifying its position as the region with the highest proportion of GDP allocated to defence worldwide, standing at 4.2%. Europe followed closely at 2.8%, with Africa at 1.9%, and Asia and Oceania at 1.7%. The Americas recorded the lowest proportion, with military spending accounting for 1.2% of GDP.

The Middle East’s persistent conflicts and escalating tensions have fuelled a substantial increase in military spending, with Israel’s defensive measures and offensive operations in response to security threats contributing to regional militarisation. The region’s military expenditure soared to $200 billion in 2023. Israel, responding to heightened threats, bolstered its military spending by 24%, primarily driven by a large-scale offensive in Gaza. Israel’s military spending, ranking second in the region after Saudi Arabia, reached $27.5 billion in 2023. 

From the thawing of diplomatic ties between Israel and select Arab nations to the eruption of conflict in Gaza, the Middle East witnessed profound shifts, fuelling fears of broader regional strife. Interestingly, Iran ranked as the fourth-largest military spender in the Middle East, experiencing a slight increase (+0.6%) to reach $10.3 billion in spending. 

The risk of a broader conflict escalation underscores the fragility of the region’s security architecture and the imperative for diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions.

In Central America and the Caribbean, the militarisation of responses to organised crime reflects a broader trend of securitisation in addressing non-traditional security problems. But the militarisation of law enforcement raises concerns about human rights abuses and the erosion of democratic norms, underscoring the need for holistic and rights-based approaches to security governance. 

Despite these regional variations, the overarching trend of escalating military expenditure underscores the urgent need for global leaders to prioritise diplomatic solutions and conflict resolution mechanisms. Failure to do so risks exacerbating tensions and fuelling a dangerous arms race, with far-reaching implications for global peace and security. 

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. He is a physician and has a master’s degree in international relations.