China’s plan to boost defense spending this year by around 7 percent — the slowest pace since 1991 — will raise concerns and stoke debate in Japan and the U.S. over their own capabilities as Beijing ramps up operations in the waters and airspace of the East and South China seas, experts say.
China’s announcement last week that it will spend 1.04 trillion yuan (about $152 billion) on defense just days after Japan scrambled jets in response to a Chinese military drill that saw fighters, bombers and early-warning aircraft fly through a key strategic entryway into the Western Pacific. It was the latest in a number of Chinese military drills near Japanese territory.
Beijing has vowed to continue to refine its military capabilities through exercises like these that test both the limits — and patience — of Tokyo and Washington.
“The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force will face an increasingly capable People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which will raise more concerns and political debates in Japan on whether to enable the JMSDF to strengthen its capabilities,” said Michael Raska, of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“However, as long as the U.S. provides strategic deterrence for Japan, China’s actions around the Senkakus will be limited,” Raska added, referring to the tiny set of islands controlled by Japan, but also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyus.
But with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, Washington’s commitment to the Senkakus — and even to the defense of Japan — has come under scrutiny like never before.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump accused Japan and other American allies of freeloading under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, comments that led to intense concern in Tokyo.
These worries have abated somewhat in recent weeks after Trump dispatched Defense Secretary James Mattis to Tokyo and with a visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson scheduled for later this week.
But the uncertainty has lingered — despite Trump’s lukewarm vows of commitment to the region — amid China’s continued push to refine power-projection capabilities that have seen it punch further into the Western Pacific Ocean.
While China’s defense outlays are set to top 1 trillion yuan for the first time ever this year, or about 1.3 percent of gross domestic product, experts say that figure is likely to fall far below Beijing’s real defense spending.
According to the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, China provides limited information on the distribution of its military spending. It also obscures spending patterns that may indicate the relative importance of a particular branch of the military, how China might respond to perceived external threats, and where China is investing in new technologies.
“China’s military expenditures have been always subject to debate given the lack of transparency and uncertainty in Beijing’s strategic intentions,” said Raska. “While China’s defense budget reflects a slowdown of the economy, it is still the world’s second largest. That said, PLA’s reforms will not be determined by military spending alone, but the ability to improve defense management processes.”
Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said that while China’s defense hike is lower than previous rises, the total outlay remains “significant.”
“With economic growth slowing, and in line of (President Xi Jinping’s) idea of the ‘new normal,’ a decrease in the rate of growth in the military budget should not be surprising,” Tsang said.
Much of the cash will be spent on its ongoing military modernization push, with the lion’s share likely to go to the navy and air force as the country seeks to upgrade and expand its global military footprint in tandem with its growing economic clout.
China’s navy and air force “will continue to receive priority funding and their capabilities will continue to increase, so there is no need for them to pull back over the maritime disputes, in the East China Sea or South China Sea,” Tsang said.
Former top Chinese military officials and observers inside the country have echoed this sentiment.
Retired Chinese Navy Adm. Liu Xiaojiang, a former political commissar and now deputy head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, was quoted by the state-run China News Service last week as saying that Beijing will bolster its navy by both expanding its personnel and improving its vessels to “safeguard the country’s maritime rights and promote its maritime interests.” China will “certainly” build a larger navy, he said, which will have an outsized role.
Retired Maj. Gen. Xu Guangyu, senior adviser to the Chinese Military Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the state-run Global Times newspaper last week that the new budget will see the nation’s North, East and South China seas fleets “strengthened” and made “more agile to cope with more complicated situations.”
The same report cited Li Jie, a widely quoted Chinese naval expert, as saying that the East China Sea will be “the prime focus for the deployment of naval forces, as it is linked to the country’s core interests including territorial sovereignty.”
Maj. Gen. Chen Zhou, military deputy to the NPC and researcher with the Military Strategy Department of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, told the country’s English-language military website that “China’s military strategy will be focused on winning information-based warfare with a special emphasis on the readiness to engage in military combat in the sea.”
Part of building such a modern military means more training — perhaps the most visible aspect of China’s burgeoning military prowess, especially from Tokyo’s perspective.
In recent months, waters and airspace surrounding Japan have been the scene of some of the more dramatic encounters between the Asian rivals as China breaks out of the so-called first-island chain — a strategically important group of islands blocking entry into the Western Pacific that includes the Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.
In December, China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, cruised into the Western Pacific for the first time, sailing beyond the island chain.
A month before that, the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled aircraft in response to a flight by two Chinese fighters, bombers and surveillance planes through the area.
In September, Beijing sent at least eight fighters and bombers to penetrate the chain. It has also sent aircraft, including bombers and fighters, through the Tsushima Strait from the East China Sea into the Sea of Japan and back, most recently in early January.
Beijing has blasted Tokyo for hyping the flights, calling them part of “regular” drills, while Japan has said it will keep a steady eye on China’s “expanding and increasing” actions in the area.
In response, Japan’s Defense Ministry has doubled the number of fighter jets it scrambles when responding to airspace checks by foreign planes, media reports said late last month.
The number of scrambles launched between last April and the end of January has already reportedly shot past 1,000, eclipsing the annual record of 944 set amid the Cold War in fiscal 1984, with the fiscal year set to wrap up at the end of this month.
The vast majority of the scrambles have been in response to Chinese incursions.
Officials in China have confirmed that the up-tempo pace of exercises will continue.
“We will intercept any intruding aircraft and follow every military vessel in areas under our responsibility,” Wang Weiming, deputy chief of staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, told the official Xinhua News Agency last week.
Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, said he expects the Chinese Navy to continue to be active in the East China Sea and beyond, adding that Japan and the U.S. will need to keep a watchful eye on the country’s defense spending.
“If the PLA focuses on missiles, submarines, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) and military infrastructure, that would be worrisome,” Kotani said. “But if the PLA tries to build a larger aircraft carrier program, it will be a waste of money as China’s carrier program is still a joke and no use in actual war-fighting.”
Amid China’s moves, Japan’s Cabinet approved a defense spending hike for the fifth straight year in December to a record ¥5.1 trillion ($45 billion). Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also said he will not cap military spending below 1 percent of the nation’s economy, an informal threshold long seen as a curb on military spending.
Trump, meanwhile, has called for a “historic” 10 percent boost of $54 billion in Pentagon spending.
Ultimately, China’s comparatively low-key defense budget announcement may be used as a potential bargaining chip by Beijing as it continues to feel out an unpredictable Trump administration.
“This is a wait-and-see message from China before its leaders’ summit with Trump. Or rather, it might be a message to America that they can cut a deal,” said Takashi Kawakami, a professor of international politics and security at Tokyo’s Takushoku University.
“Japan should be careful and closely watch the summit. If they seal a deal, it’s possible that Japan will have to defend the Senkakus alone.”