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What China’s Defense Budget Growth Means

Zhao Xiaozhuo, Deputy director, PLA Academy of Military Science
March 7, 2013
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According to a budget report unveiled on March 5 by the first session of the 12th National People’s Congress, China plans to raise its defense budget by 10.7 percent to 720.2 billion yuan (114.3 billion U.S. dollars) in 2013. The military spending will be used to improve the living and working conditions of service people, and make the armed forces more mechanized and information-based.

Over the past two decades, China’s defense budget has been a focus of international media coverage since it has risen steadily along with the country’s booming economy. Various opinions have been voiced to analyze the driving force behind it. In my opinion, there are three reasons for China’s rising defense budget.

First, it is part of the PLA’s fundamental task to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and ensuring its peaceful development. China is a large country with a land-border of 22 thousand kilometers and 14 land neighbors, and with a coastline of 18 thousand kilometers and 8 neighbors at sea. With four nuclear neighbors (Russia, India, Pakistan and the DPRK) and four tension areas in East Asia (sovereignty disputes in South China Sea, the Taiwan issue, territorial disputes over the Diaoyu Islands, and the Korean nuclear issue), China’s security environment is one of the most complicated in the world. In recent years, the US “pivot to Asia” or its rebalancing strategy towards the Asia-Pacific makes the regional situation more complicated and challenging.

Second, it is necessary to modernize the army. Since 1970s, a revolution has taken place in military affairs, and the form of war has changed dramatically. To meet this trend, the price of weapons and equipment has been surging. Over the past few decades, the price of a tank has increased dramatically, and that of a jet fighter has increased even more. This revolution has left no other choice but for a country to catch up. Chinese history of a century-old humiliation from 1840s to 1940s indicates that “lagging behind leaves one vulnerable to attacks,” as Chairman Mao Zedong once said. In other words, if China doesn’t want to be attacked again, it has to modernize its armed forces and increase its military spending.

Third, it is necessary to dealing with diversified military tasks. Since the end of the Cold War, although a large-scale war is not possible, China has been increasingly dealing with diversified security threats. Over the past few decades, the PLA has been actively taking part in disaster relief operations in the cases of floods, earthquakes, droughts, typhoons, and forest fires. Recent examples include rescue work after the earthquake in Wenchuan county, the Sichuan Province earthquake in 2008, the earthquake in Yushu county, Qinghai Province and the mud-rock slide in Zhouqu county, Gansu province in 2010. Since 1990, the PLA has sent about 20,000 military person/times to participate in UN peacekeeping operations, and China has become the country that has sent the most peacekeepers among the five permanent members of the UNSC. In December 2008, China dispatched naval ships to conduct escort operations in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. In recent years, China’s armed forces have actively assisted relevant departments of the Chinese government to provide relief materials to disaster-stricken countries and to contribute specialized teams to international disaster relief operations.

Although China has continued to raise its defense budget, making it the second-largest military spender after the US, its military spending is still at a low level considering the size of its territory, population and economy. Since 1978, the average ratio of China’s defense budget to its GDP has been about 1.4 percent. Contrary to what many people believe, the actual percentage of China’s defense budget in its GDP has been declining in recent years to 1.34% in 2010, 1.28% in 2011 and 1.25% in 2012. The ratio is not only lower than the average 3% in Western countries, such as 4.5%~4.8% in the US and 2.6%~3.5% in major European countries, but is also lower than the global average of 2.6%.

The ratio of China’s defense budget to its government spending, has been less than 8.6% for thirty years, although it declined in to 6.3% in 2010, 6% in 2011 and 5.39% in 2012, which is again lower than the average ratio of 16% in the world. Corresponding with the declining trend in recent years, the spending increase has slowed down to 12.7% in 2011 compared with the previous year, to 11.2% in 2012 and 10.7% in 2013.

What does China’s defense budget mean for regional security? Much attention has been focused on the numbers, but more important is China’s strategy and its way of dealing with the outside world. China has declared its national strategy as peaceful development and its defense policy as defensive in nature. It has chosen to accept and comply with most of the present norms and rules and incorporate itself into the existing system. It has also signed almost all of the security related international conventions and treaties, such as those on arms control and disarmament. Thus, China will not be a part of the problem, but a part of the solution. Although China still has some territorial disputes and disputes over maritime rights and interests with its neighbors, it is opposed to the use of force in solving these disputes. We have good reason to believe that, with its more capable military, China will play a more constructive role in regional security and provide more common security goods to the Asia-Pacific region and the international community as a whole.

Zhao Xiaozhuo, is deputy director of Center on China-America Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science, PLA.

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