Among the five veto-holding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, some of the most militarized nations in the world — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — only China and Russia have increased their defense spending in the last year.
Britain, France and the US have experienced stagnant military spending, despite major threats since 2014 emanating from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Eastern Europe as well as the encroachment of Islamic State, or ISIS, in the Middle East. Although Russia and the US remain the world’s major arms exporters, China has been rapidly gaining as the third-largest trader in the world.
As the permanent members of the Security Council, the five countries’ main job is to oversee peace and security in every corner of the globe, but that objective may be at odds with their national interests at ensuring military capacity and production.
“Even as the P5 have subscribed to the ideals of the UN to prevent aggression, they have simultaneously built up their forces along their territorial lines,” said Stephen Schlesinger, a fellow at The Century Foundation policy institute and the author of “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations.” (P5 refers to the permanent council members.)
“This is a paradox, unfortunately, we have to live with if we want the UN to operate at all,” Schlesinger said.
The US, for example, spent 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product on military purchases in 2014, down from a high of 4.7 percent in 2010. Britain and France each spent 2.2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense last year, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), an independent research organization that provides data on armaments and related military information.
China and Russia have both let loose territorial ambitions in recent years, laying claim to contested areas that have not been formally recognized internationally. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014, where it supports militants who have grabbed territory in the eastern Ukranian region on the Russian border. China has been building islands in the contested South China Sea with evidence of military installations and landing strips for military aircraft.
If viewed solely by military spending in the billions of dollars and not as a percentage of gross domestic product, the US and China spend the most in the world on military hardware, Sipri says.
By that measure of spending, Russia is ranked third in the world, followed by Saudi Arabia, which is ranked ahead of Britain, France and other major powers like Brazil, Germany and India.
Brazil and Germany have shown stagnant military expenditures since 2010: Brazil currently spends 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, while Germany spends only 1.2 percent. India spends 2.4 percent on defense, a decline from a high of 2.9 percent in 2009.
Germany said it was planning to increase its defense budget by 6.2 percent in the next five years, shifting from its neutral stance to a more assertive world player.
As for exporting weapons, the US remains the world’s leading arms seller, according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, with 31 percent of all arms exports, followed by Russia at 27 percent. China is the world’s third-largest supplier of arms, as exports rose 143 percent from 2010 to 2014.
Most of the Chinese arms are heading to countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Middle East, in addition to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan.
The increase in China’s military spending occurs as the government has increased its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, claiming sovereignty to 90 percent of the waters. China announced it June it was nearly finished with its land reclamations, which it said was being done for military defense and civilian purposes.
The chances of a renewed arms race among the US, Russia and China are high, said Michael W. Doyle, director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative at Columbia University. Doyle predicted that the UN Security Council would become more deadlocked regarding action in Syria, and that risks of a “cold war” style confrontation, in the South China Sea or elsewhere, will continue to increase as long as China and Russia continue their land-grabbing policies.
Among NATO members, defense spending has increased slightly since the conflict in Ukraine began last year, but many nations do not meet the 2 percent of gross domestic product threshold that NATO leadership expects.
At the UN Security Council, only two of the five permanent members, China and Russia, are most likely to increase their defense spending again over the next year. A report from the British defense ministry projects that by 2045, US and China will retain the top two spots, respectively, as military spenders, with India and Russia spending more in billions of dollars than Britain and France.
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Alexander Brotman is the Joseph S. Nye Jr. External Relations Intern with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. in film studies and media and communications from Muhlenberg College. He has worked for State Representative Alice Peisch of Massachusetts, Africa Center in Dublin, Harvard School of Public Health and Amnesty International.