China's military spending slows, on paper

After more than two decades of double-digit annual growth in defense spending, Beijing announced its budget would grow 7.5 percent in 2010. But analysts say China's military spending is only slowing on paper.

Nir Elias/Reuters
Paramilitary policemen practice during a daily training session in the Forbidden City, in Beijing, Thursday. China's military spending will grow by 7.5 percent in 2010, Beijing announced Thursday.
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China's military spending will grow by 7.5 percent in 2010, the smallest increase in more than two decades of double-digit yearly growth, Beijing announced Thursday.

Decades of rapid growth of China’s military, which has the largest standing army in the world with more than 2.3 million members, has aroused alarm from the West and some of China’s neighbors. Analysts say the smaller growth this year is probably due to the global financial crisis, as well as an attempt to assuage international fears over China's rapidly expanding arsenal.

The Associated Press reports that parliament official Li Zhaoxing said this year’s budget increase, bringing expenditures to about $77.9 billion, will be used to “meet various threats,” and that China’s military is “defensive in nature." He said that China’s defense spending makes up 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), while defense spending in the US is more than 4 percent of GDP and more than 2 percent in Britain, France, and Russia.

But many foreign analysts consider China’s actual military spending to be double what was announced, the AP reports.

The smaller rise in spending is due in part to the hit China's economy, especially the crucial export sector, has taken from the global financial crisis, prompting the government to rein in some expenditures, said Ni Lexiong, a defense analyst at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

Meanwhile, the leadership has realized that large increases are generating concern and suspicion among China's neighbors, potentially sparking an arms race, he said.

"The decline shows that China does not want to be seen as an aggressive military power," Ni said.

The BBC offers this year-by-year graph showing China's reported military spending verses estimated actual military spending.

The smaller increase this year may also be intended to prevent criticism of budget growth in the military while other agendas suffer from the financial crisis, or to signal easing tensions with Taiwan, reported Agence France-Presse.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported last month, China has voiced strong anger to the US over sales of US arms to Taiwan, which China still considers part of its territory. The US-China relationship has been slightly rocky lately over this and other issues, including President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.

China’s state-run news service Xinhua reports that the rapid growth of China’s military spending in the past two decades was aimed at modernizing China’s military and that the smaller increase this year shows that “China's defense development has entered a more mature, healthy and stable stage," according to an official.

Reuters reports that China often uses its military spending to send signals, and the smaller reported increase this year was not likely to slow actual military spending.

"All the evidence suggests that they are on a very powerful trajectory of expansion in substantive terms, and they seem to use this figure for political purposes almost, to send signals," said Ron Huisken, a China defense expert at the Australian National University in Canberra.

But an article in Foreign Policy magazine argues that while China’s military is growing and modernizing, fears of China becoming a threat to the US are premature. The US military is still far more advanced than China’s, which does not possess the capability to challenge the US far from Chinese shores, the article argues.

Despite the goose-stepping soldiers at Chinese military parades, the PLA is far from a carbon copy of the Soviet threat. For all the jargon-laden, prideful articles about China's inevitable rise in the world, Chinese strategists are cautious not to openly verbalize aspirations to conquer the globe or establish distant bases, outposts, or supply stations.

Perhaps a generation from now, Chinese military planners might be strategizing more openly about how to acquire overseas basing rights and agreements with allies where they might station their forces abroad, just as the French and British have done since the Napoleonic wars and the Americans have done more recently. But with China, that process has not begun in earnest. At least, not for now.

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