Six of world's biggest military spenders have had to cut their defense budget last year as a result of the financial crisis, but Russia and China are seizing the opportunity to finally catch up.
It wasn't quite a passion for arms reduction that was behind Brazil, Germany, France, the UK, India and the US all cutting defense spending in 2011. "In most of those cases it's been part of an effort to balance the state budget," explained Carina Solmirano of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
For Germany, the UK and France, Solmirano projects further defense cuts in 2012. Considering that NATO is scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan next year, the US is also likely to spend less on arms, she says.
In the case of Brazil and India, the reasons for the cuts are somewhat different yet still linked to the economic situation of the countries. "Brazil has cut its defense budget mostly to slow down economic growth and prevent inflation," Solmirano said.
India, she said, has consistently increased its military spending over the last years, with an 8.5 percent boost in nominal terms in 2011. "It is only because of the high inflation rate that this represents a decrease in spending," she explained.
Russia's military is in dire need of modernization
The trend in Russia, however, is entirely different. According to SIPRI, the military budget saw a 9.7 percent boost in 2011, totaling just under 72 billion dollars (55 billion euros). Moscow is therefore third after the US and China - ahead both of France and the UK.
Russia primarily needed to increase its defense budget to prevent its military from collapsing. "In a way, that money is needed to make up for the lack of funding in recent years," Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, told DW.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the last big investments were in 1992, agreed defense policy expert Vladislav Shurygin. "Since then, there've only been sporadic investments. Should the budget not be beefed up now, the Russian military is in danger of sinking to the level of developing countries," he said.
Yet boosting military spending also bears significant risks. "The fact that a lot of money gets spent doesn't mean that it's spent well. During those years of underfunding, many officers left the troops and many technologies were lost," Shurgyin said. Pukhov adds that the Russian military is currently undergoing major restructuring. While this does require a lot of money, he warns that Russia's biggest problems are by no means in the military sector.
But both experts agree on the goal of the Russian military spending: Moscow wants to be ready for future instability in the country's south and east. "Once NATO pulls out of Afghanistan, we could see a rise of Islamist extremism in some of the central Asian countries bordering Russia. Also, Moscow borders with the rising power of China or a country like Georgia that has already demonstrated it is ready for military conflict," Pukhov said.
China seeks to catch up
Beijing does not want to lose out in that race. In 2011, the government increased defense spending by 6.7 percent compared to the previous year. For 2012, China plans another 11.2 percent boost. Many in the West are concerned about the increased military spending in China but Gu Xuewu, head of the Center for Global Studies at Bonn University in Germany cautions that many of those worries are exaggerated. The military spending was still in line with economic growth, he said.
"In China, spending is growing by double-digit figures in almost all sectors - not only in the military. Spending on social issues, education and research is also on the rise. China's military spending should therefore not be seen out of context," Gu said.
Beijing's defense budget is about two percent of the country's GDP - which is still slightly less than in the UK or France. With about four percent, the US spends more than twice as much of its GDP on the military budget.
One of the main reasons for China to boost military spending is the effort to modernize troops and equipment. According to Gu, the US is some 20 to 30 years ahead of China in terms of military efficiency.
Solmirano says there's a clear connection between economic development and the efforts to modernize troops and equipment and invest in military research for both China and Russia. But the relative strength of their economies could prove a military advantage, Hong Kong journalist Willy Lam told DW.
"The US now has to cut its budget because of the financial crisis. For China, this is a chance to catch up - especially for its air force and navy," Lam said.