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LONDON — After nearly two decades of double-digit increases in its military budget, China announced a mere 7.5 percent jump in its defense budget this year.

It was the first time since the 1980s that China’s defense spending had increased by a single-digit percentage. The Chinese government maintained that while this increase will be used to enhance China’s ability to meet various threats, the nation remains “committed to peaceful development and a military posture that is defensive in nature.”

At the domestic political level, it was important for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to control its spending patterns given the toll that the global financial crisis has taken on the Chinese economy, especially the crucial export sector. China’s massive economic stimulus program and the attempt by the government to devote more resources to relieve growing socioeconomic tensions might have forced the CCP to divest the defense sector of some resources.

The CCP leadership is extremely sensitive to the charge that it is not adequately addressing domestic socio- economic issues. In light of rising unemployment, substantial increases in military expenditures would not have gone down well with ordinary Chinese.

It is significant that this year’s session of the National People’s Congress is expected to see a shift in spending priorities toward affordable housing, education, health care and other social programs.

At the global level, the exorbitant increases in China’s military budget over the past several years have sparked concerns among the major powers and China’s neighbors. As a growing economic power, China is concentrating on the accretion of military might to secure and enhance its own strategic interests.

China, which has the largest standing army in the world at 2.3 million-strong, continues to make the most dramatic improvements in its nuclear force among the five nuclear powers. Improvements in its conventional military capabilities are even more impressive.

What has caused concern in Asia and beyond is the opacity of China’s military buildup. A consensus has emerged that Beijing’s real military spending is at least double the announced figure.

The official figures of the Chinese government do not include the cost of new weapons purchases, research or other big-ticket items for China’s highly secretive military. The real figures are thought to be much higher.

From Washington to Tokyo, from Brussels to Canberra, calls have been rising for China to be more forthcoming about its intentions behind the dramatic military spending pace and the scope of its military capabilities.

As revealed, the relatively modest increase in defense spending this year might signal an attempt to show that China is not as aggressive as some may think.

Beijing has tried to be more transparent about its defense spending. To try to assuage concerns worldwide about its rapidly growing military capabilities, the Chinese government has released “white papers” on defense for several years now.

The world would be well advised, though, to take any ostensible slowing in Chinese defense spending with a pinch of salt. According to the Chinese government’s assessment, China’s military spending expanded by 14.9 percent over the 2008 total, but in reality the Chinese military ended up spending around $2 billion more than anticipated.

Even this year’s actual spending could be as much as 2 1/2 times more than official estimates as it does not include purchases of foreign weapons systems.

China has started asserting its military profile more than ever. Last year, Chinese vessels tackled Somali pirates in the Middle East, the first time Chinese vessels had operated outside Asia. Beijing is also considering sending combat troops abroad in support of U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

Chinese military officers are openly talking of building the world’s strongest military and displacing the U.S. as global hegemon — by means of war if necessary, as one senior officer recently suggested.

This kind of talk might be premature at the moment as the U.S. military remains far more advanced than China’s, which does not yet possess the capability to project power far from Chinese shores. Still, China’s neighbors should worry, especially as the U.S. starts to look increasingly inward.

Regional powers, including India and Japan, and the U.S. will need a carefully calibrated response to China’s rise, one that adequately protects their interests. As of now it is not entirely clear if these powers realize the true extent of the challenge they face.

It would be a tragedy if the hype over this year’s modest increase in China’s defense budget lulled these nations into a slumber they could ill-afford.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.

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