China ups military spend by 12 percent. Are the gloves coming off?

China plans to spend $132 billion on its military as it asserts its maritime interests, putting it at odds with the US military preeminence in the Pacific.

Paramilitary policemen practise combat skills during a drill at a training base in Deyang, Sichuan province March 3, 2014. More than 800 people participated in the drill to demonstrate their capabilities of dealing with riots and other emergencies, local media reported.

China made headlines today with its annual military budget, up 12.2 percent to $132 billion dollars this year. That's about one quarter of the $495 billion military budget that President Obama presented to Congress yesterday. 

Predictably, official commentary here stresses that China is a peace-loving nation with no aggressive intentions. But Beijing has also signaled its ambitions to be the power that holds the ring in the western Pacific, and those ambitions have been spelled out, arguably clearer than ever before, in a direct challenge to US military preeminence. 

China needs a powerful military, explained Fu Ying, spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress, on Tuesday because “if some country provokes or undermines consensus or even damages peace and order in the region, then China must respond effectively.” 

On Wednesday the state-run news agency Xinhua followed up with a clearly worded commentary. “As a responsible major stakeholder in regional peace and stability, China needs sufficient strength to prevent hot-headed players from misjudgment and thus forestall conflict and war, so as to maintain a favorable environment for the socioeconomic development of all in the neighborhood.”

For the last 30 years, China has concentrated on getting rich, leaving to America and its allies the complicated and expensive business of ensuring international peace and security. Some in Washington have even accused Beijing of “freeloading.” That era is now over.

Not that the Chinese military is as powerful as America’s. Beijing may have the world's second largest military budget after Washington’s, but its armed forces are still hundreds of billions of dollars and years, if not decades, behind US forces. As a proportion of GDP, China spends half as much as America: two percent of GDP in 2012 compared to four percent of US output, according to the World Bank. 

China has not waged costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course. But as their country develops, the Chinese argue, it is only to be expected that its military develop too.

“As China’s power in the world grows, it is quite normal that we should increase our military budget to upgrade our equipment and pay our soldiers more,” says Ma Xiaolin, an independent military commentator in Beijing. “Nobody should panic about this.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang voiced Beijing’s feelings in an unusually colorful way Wednesday. “Some people abroad want China to be a Boy Scout who never grows up,” he complained. "But he grows taller every year and his feet grow too. You can’t always make him wear small clothes and shoes.”

New military hardware 

Still, China has launched its first aircraft carrier, tested two models of stealth fighter planes, and recently deployed an anti-ship ballistic missile that some analysts see as a potential threat to US vessels in the Pacific. Governments in the region and beyond have expressed concern over how Beijing is allocating its extra military funding. 

“We remain concerned about a lack of transparency regarding China’s growing military and its increasingly assertive behavior in the maritime domain,” said David Helvey, US deputy assistant secretary of defense, in testimony to a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

Foreign governments are not necessarily convinced by China’s insistence on its peaceful intentions in light of an increasingly assertive stance on maritime issues backed up by an ever expanding navy.

China and Japan are locked in a dispute over ownership of a group of rocky islands in the East China Sea which has soured relations to an extent not seen in many years. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Vietnam, amongst others, bridle at Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, and to the rocks, shoals and islands found there. 

Countries throughout the region were shocked last November, when China unexpectedly declared a new Air Defense Identification Zone over a large part of the East China Sea, demanding that all aircraft passing through it should identify themselves to Chinese air traffic control.

Xu Guangyu, a former professor at China’s National Defense University in Beijing, has a blunt message for foreigners unnerved by China’s swelling military budget.

“Just two factors shaped this budget,” he says. “What we need and what we can afford. And in the race with the US, Japan, Britain and France, China is still behind.”

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