China will maintain “a reasonable and appropriate growth rate” for defense spending this year, a top government spokesman said Monday ahead of the release of the country’s defense budget — a closely watched indicator of Beijing’s strategic intentions.
Zhang Yesui, the spokesman for the second session of the 13th National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber-stamp national legislature, said China’s “limited defense spending,” which he said is aimed at safeguarding national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, “poses no threat to any other country,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“China maintains a reasonable and appropriate growth rate in its defense expenditure to meet its demand in safeguarding national security and military reform with Chinese characteristics,” Zhang Yesui, a former ambassador to Washington, said.
The legislature is expected to unveil the defense budget Tuesday.
Last year, China boosted its defense spending 8.1 percent from 2017 to 1.11 trillion yuan ($165 billion), the largest increase in three years as leader Xi Jinping seeks to turn the country’s military into a “world-class” force.
Under Xi, China’s military has undergone a massive modernization push to turn it into one that can protect Beijing’s interests as disputes roil relations with the U.S., its neighbors and old foe Japan.
The focus on creating a more potent fighting force has seen Beijing pour cash into projects such as a second aircraft carrier, integrating stealth fighters into its air force and fielding an array of advanced missiles that can strike air and sea targets from long distances.
It has also seen the Chinese military increasingly sent further from its shores, sometimes facing off with the U.S., Japan and others near disputed islands in the South and East China seas.
Zhang, however, touted Beijing’s “peaceful development,” reiterating the ruling Communist Party’s boiler-plate line that its defense policy “is defensive in nature.”
Preparing for a possible backlash when the budget is released Tuesday, Zhang zeroed in on his country’s policies, calling them key to understanding China’s intentions.
“Whether a country is a military threat to others or not is not determined by its increase in defense expenditure, but by the diplomatic and national defense policies it adopts,” he said.
China has seen its defense budgets grow at a single-digit clip since 2016 after five consecutive years of double digit increases.
Those years of double-digit growth have given China the world’s second-largest defense budget after the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump has said he will seek $750 billion from Congress for defense spending next year. In December, Japan’s unveiled a record-high draft defense budget for fiscal 2019 that saw expenditures rise to ¥5.26 trillion (approximately $47 billion) from ¥5.19 trillion the previous year.
But despite China’s claims, both the Pentagon and U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency have said that Beijing’s “poor accounting transparency” meant the numbers could be significantly lower than its actual expenditures.
“The formal defense budget process does not include funding for foreign weapons procurement, some research and development (R&D), and certain personnel benefits,” the DIA wrote in its 2019 China Military Power Report released in January. “Other government ministries distribute defense funds in addition to extrabudgetary funds that supplement personnel living subsidies, equipment maintenance, and other budgetary items.”