China has announced that its official military budget will grow by 10.1% in the coming year, amid unease among Beijing’s neighbours about its growing might and territorial ambitions.
The increase to about 145 billion dollars (£94 billion) in spending would mark the fifth year in a row of double-digit increases despite the country’s slowing economic growth, which fell to 7.4% last year from 7.7% the previous year.
The spending reflects China’s growing power and desire to assert itself. However, Beijing said the bigger budgets are aimed only at modernising and improving conditions for the 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the world’s largest standing military.
Legislative spokeswoman Fu Ying said: “China has a tougher road to travel than other large nations in terms of national defence modernisation. We can only rely on ourselves for research and development of most of our military technology.
“Meanwhile, we need to ceaselessly improve conditions for our soldiers.”
Ms Fu spoke at a news conference ahead of the formal announcement of the military budget. She said that China’s military posture remains strictly defensive and that it has never used “gunboats” to advance its trade interests.
Despite such assurances, neighbouring countries have increased their own military spending in part to counter China’s rise.
In the past several years, Chinese and Japanese ships have frequently confronted each other near a set of contested East China Sea islands. China and India also have a disputed border high in the Himalayas.
China also has disputes with several neighbours over territory in the South China Sea, where US director of national intelligence James Clapper said last week that Beijing is expanding outposts as part of an “aggressive” effort to assert sovereignty.
US state department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters the US is monitoring China’s military developments. She called for China to be more transparent and use its capabilities “in a manner that’s conducive to maintenance of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”.
Japan increased its defence budget by 2.8% this year to a record 42 billion dollars (£27 billion), the third consecutive year of increases following 11 years of declines prior to hawkish prime minister Shinzo Abe’s rise to power in 2012. Planes and naval vessels to counter China’s growing capabilities top the Japanese military’s shopping list.
Even more dramatically, India, the world’s biggest arms importer in recent years, increased its spending this year by 11% to 40 billion dollars (£26 billion), with big increases for its navy and air force.
New Delhi has expressed concern not only about the disputed land border, but also about the Chinese navy’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean.
China’s official military spending is still less than a third of the US defence budget, a proposed 534 billion dollars (£347 billion) this year along with 51 billion dollars (£33 billion) for the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But it comes against a background of anticipated flat or falling American spending on its armed forces in coming years.
The Pentagon and global arms bodies estimate China’s actual military spending may be anywhere from 40 to 50% more because the official budget doesn’t include the costs of high-tech weapons imports, research and development, and other programs.
Neighbouring countries have come to expect Chinese defence spending increases, said Alexander Neill, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“There’s the expectation that it’s not likely to plateau in the next few years, but will generally sit around that level commensurate with the PLA’s reform and modernization goals,” he said.
China’s low inflation could make this year’s increase close to or bigger in real terms than rises in recent years, when rapid price increases eroded the military’s buying power.
Last year’s increase was 12.2%.
China’s neighbours may gain a degree of reassurance from the dip in the growth rate, said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at Shanghai’s University of Political Science and Law.
Growth of less than 10% would likely “be not enough” to meet the PLA’s modernisation goals, Ni said.
China is seeking to improve conditions for the military amid rising labour costs and competition with the private sector for top graduates in science and technology.
The need for ever-more sophisticated weaponry is also increasing the costs, with the addition of an aircraft carrier combat wing, the roll-out of two prototype stealth fighters and cruise missiles that fly faster than the speed of sound.
The PLA’s traditional mandate had been to guard China’s borders and prepare for contingencies involving Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing has pledged to take control of, by force if necessary.
However, newer missions, including UN peacekeeping operations, are taking China’s military much further afield.
China is also poised to pass an anti-terrorism law that could authorise the sending of military forces overseas to take part in anti-terror missions if granted permission by the host nation.
China’s forces, under the control of the Communist Party, are seen as being hampered by political interference, and top commanders have lately come under scrutiny as part of a nationwide crackdown on corruption.
Already, president Xi Jinping has overseen the arrests of two top generals, including the military’s retired number two officer, Xu Caihou. This week, officials announced that 14 other top officers are under investigation or have been convicted of crimes such as selling ranks, embezzling funds or taking kickbacks on housing contracts.
While harming morale among some officers, the anti-corruption drive could bring benefits to the military through a reduction of waste and losses from corruption, said Shanghai expert Ni.