China is beefing up spending on high-tech weapons and upgrading combat readiness as it throws its military weight behind territorial claims that have stirred tensions with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors.
Premier Li Keqiang said the defense budget from the central government -- which will rise 12.2 percent to 808.2 billion yuan ($131.6 billion) this year -- would be used to modernize the force and enhance defense of its land, coastal and air boundaries. Defense will make up a slightly larger part of the government’s total expenditure than last year.
In a reference to rising friction with Japan, Li said at the opening of a meeting of the annual legislature that China “will safeguard the victory of World War II and the postwar international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history.”
China has signaled that it won’t back away from its more assertive stance in regional disputes, said Mathieu Duchatel, head of the China and Global Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or Sipri, in Beijing.
“If anyone moves in the region on territorial disputes there will be a strong answer,” Duchatel said. “The rising military spending reinforces this position and makes it more credible.”
China has couched its military spending as necessary for it to contribute to peace in the Asia-Pacific, and to reflect its status as a regional power.
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army are not Boy Scouts with red-tasseled spears,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters yesterday in Beijing. “Some foreigners always expect China to be a baby Scout. In that way, who will safeguard our national security? What about protecting world peace?”
“Even if he’s a Boy Scout he will get bigger every year, and his feet will get bigger every year. You can’t always make him wear the same small clothes as before, and the same small shoes,” Qin said.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and Senate Armed Services Committee member, said that China’s spending is “part of the picture that we have to keep in mind as we review strategically some of the key areas like submarine strength and cybercapacity” where China has undertaken “very robust amounts of spending.”
China’s increased military spending comes as the U.S. is cutting back. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed a Pentagon budget for the fiscal 2015 year of $495.6 billion that would reduce the Army’s personnel by 6 percent to fewer than before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That is still more than three times China’s official spending plans for this year at current exchange rates.
“The rise of China globally, economically, and the fact they’ve the desire to build a military they believe is necessary to defend their interests regionally and globally, we shouldn’t be surprised by that,” said Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
China’s 12.2 percent spending increase is “just what we can see,” Locklear told an House Armed Services Committee hearing. “There’s much more that, I’m told, lie below that.”
Some analysts say China’s actual defense spending is much higher than the announced figure. It reached $240 billion last year, about twice the officially declared budget, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said last month.
The 12.2 percent nominal increase tops the 9.5 percent rise in total government spending. Taking inflation into account, the defense budget will grow 8.4 percent, according to Dr. Samuel Perlo-Freeman, director of the Programme on Military Expenditure and Arms Production at Sipri. While slightly higher than the targeted economic growth rate of 7.5 percent, the difference is not so large as to suggest a break in the general trend, he said.
“We will comprehensively enhance the revolutionary nature of the Chinese armed forces, further modernize them and upgrade their performance, and continue to raise their deterrence and combat capabilities in the information age,” Li said at the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
China needs to go beyond a military oriented around ground forces, according to Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore who focuses on regional military issues.
“One thing the Chinese military has always lacked is the ability to project sustained power very far out from their borders,” he said. “They haven’t been able to get their military to operate effectively at great distances.”
China is building up its navy as President Xi Jinping seeks to position China as a maritime power. The country’s second aircraft carrier will be completed in 2018, the South China Morning Post reported Jan. 19, citing a regional Communist Party chief. The first carrier, the Liaoning, which was completed last year, is some way from combat-readiness, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific, said Feb 9.
China has increasingly asserted itself in territorial disputes with its neighbors that have lingered for decades. Competing claims with Japan over islands in the East China Sea led China to declare in November an air defense identification zone over a swathe of the sea that overlapped with existing zones of Japan and South Korea.
Japan will push for more transparency in China’s defense policy, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo yesterday.
In the South China Sea, which China claims almost all of, tensions have also risen with the Philippines. Chinese ships used water cannons in January to drive Filipino fishermen away from a disputed shoal, the Philippine military said Feb. 24.
“It is the prerogative of each country to determine its military capacity,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters today in Manila. “Given however China’s assertive mode as viewed by the international community, a clarification on the significant increase in its military spending would be helpful.”
China’s increased spending will alarm neighbors and has already prompted some, such as Vietnam and Japan, to boost their own military budgets, according to Phillip Saunders, Director of the Center for Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington.
“If it is primarily to reinforce Chinese territorial claims at the expense of its neighbors, increased capabilities and assertive behavior will be an increasing source of tensions and problems,” Saunders said.
Even so, China’s only partway through a long modernization effort, according to Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s ties with its neighbors. By 2020, the army hopes to make “major progress” but doesn’t expect to have a fully modern force until 2049, he said.
— With assistance by Henry Sanderson