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China tensions push India into world's top five defence spenders

[NEW DELHI] India has joined the US and China as one of the world’s five biggest military spenders, reflecting geopolitical tensions as well as the country’s reliance on imported weapons and sprawling personnel costs.

New Delhi’s defence spending rose by 5.5 per cent to US$63.9 billion in 2017 and has now passed France, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report released on Wednesday.

Worldwide military spending rose marginally last year to US$1.73 trillion, or roughly 2.2 per cent of global gross domestic product, the group said. The list of the world’s biggest military spenders has remained consistent in recent years, dominated by the US and China, which spent US$610 billion and US$228 billion respectively, according to SIPRI, which researches global arms spending.

However, the group said the balance of military spending is "clearly shifting" towards Asia, Oceania and the Middle East, driven largely by spending increases in China, India and Saudi Arabia.

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China spends far more on its military than any other power in Asia.

Beijing’s share of worldwide military expenditure rose to 13 per cent in 2017 from just 5.8 per cent in 2008, according to SIPRI. The Chinese government has increased spending 8.5 per cent per year between 2007 and 2016 and its leaders "seem committed to increases in defence spending for the foreseeable future, even as China’s economic growth slows", according to a US Department of Defense report on China’s military.

In India’s case, however, increased spending doesn’t mean the armed forces are deploying state-of-the-art equipment. The rise in defence spending mostly goes towards salaries and pensions for roughly 1.4 million serving personnel and more than two million veterans, said Laxman Kumar Behera, a research fellow with New Delhi’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

"Because so much money is consumed by manpower costs, there isn’t enough left over to buy equipment," Mr Behera said.

India’s own army echoes that sentiment. Vice-Chief of Army Staff Sarath Chand told a parliamentary committee in March the current budget barely accounts for inflation and tax payments. Only 14 per cent goes toward military modernisation compared to 63 per cent for salaries, Lt Gen Chand said.

SIPRI previously ranked India as the world’s largest arms importer because its domestic defence manufacturing industry remains curtailed by red tape, a reliance on state-owned defence companies and procurement delays.

Faced with geopolitical threats from Pakistan and China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to boost domestic defence production with his ‘Make in India’ programme.

Yet, Ministry of Defense data released in response to a parliamentary question show that procurement from Indian vendors has declined since 2014 - when Mr Modi came to power - while procurement from foreign vendors increased slightly. Overall equipment procurement also dipped, the data shows.