China has taken two steps to increase the transparency of its military. The decision to resume providing data to the United Nations register on trade in conventional weapons and to participate in the U.N. Military Transparency Mechanism will provide some insight into what China is doing in this sensitive area. They are welcome moves, but they must be accompanied by greater efforts to explain what Beijing is doing and why.
There is considerable concern about China’s military spending. Regional governments have watched with alarm as the Chinese military has secured double-digit budget increases for nearly two decades. This year, growth nearly reached 18 percent and total spending topped $46 billion. Even more worrisome are reports that official figures are low: The United States estimates that spending could be two or three times higher.
China argues that its numbers are accurate and much of the increase has gone to raising salaries for its soldiers. It also explains that the military is undergoing the last of four modernizations as the natural outgrowth of an expanding economy.
Those explanations are not wholly convincing. The steady expansion of military spending seems disproportionate to regional threats and out of sync with Beijing’s insistence that it has only peaceful intentions toward its neighbors. Providing this data is only a first step toward winning trust in the region.
More important is defense dialogue with neighbors. Last month’s visit to Tokyo by Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan and the reported agreement to open a hot line were an important development in ties with China. That trip followed a visit to China by U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, who was given access equal to that afforded Chinese visitors to the U.S. That inequity has been a long-standing complaint in Washington. Beijing’s readiness to address those concerns will go a long way toward reducing suspicions surrounding its intentions and help build the trust that is the foundation of truly peaceful relations with its neighbors.
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