Since the beginning of the 21st century, China’s defense budget has undergone “compensatory growth” for more than a decade. Accordingly, China’s defense budget has become a focus of Western media as a topic for selling the “China military threat” theory. This year the issue has become hot in light of China’s ongoing territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines. On March 5, 2014, when China announced a plan to raise its defense budget by 12.2 percent to 808.2 billion yuan, some foreign media even interpreted the budget growth as a sign of preparation for war. In response to such an emotional fuss, a rational explanation of China’s defense budget growth seems necessary. This author suggests the following rationale behind China’s defense budget:
Firstly, as a war victim in history, China now dreams to become strong, but has no intention to play a zero-sum game with any country in the world.
A history of international relations has taught China two fundamental lessons. One is that “lagging behind leaves one vulnerable to attacks.” Since 1840, peace has been an impossible luxury for a big but weak nation, and that weakness brings no peace but rather repeated foreign invasions. The Chinese people will never forget this lesson. That’s why they have their dream of a great rejuvenation and understand that they also need a strong army to defend their country.
Lesson two is that a zero-sum game has no future. The world has changed, in that nations are interdependent with each other for the common good. That’s why China has chosen and been committed to a path of peaceful development, and pursued a national defense policy that is defensive in nature.
Therefore, China’s “compensatory growth” of military spending should be interpreted as a modernization effort to keep the PLA strong enough to defend the country and defend peace, rather than as an arms race or a new Cold War with the US or Japan.
Secondly, as a sovereign state, China is entitled to the “natural right” to develop and maintain a military force strong enough to safeguard its national interests.
China faces numerous security threats. From the traditional security perspective, China lives in a complicated environment, with a land border of 22,000 kilometers with 14 neighbors, including four nuclear states, and a coastline of 18,000 kilometers with six neighbors at sea. In recent years, territorial disputes over some islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea have been somewhat exacerbated. The US “pivot to Asia” and Japan’s rightward political shift have made the regional security situation more complicated and challenging. China’s strategic space has been compressed, suffering from unprecedented security pressure.
From a non-traditional security perspective, China also faces considerable challenges. As a country with vast land and a long coastal line, China is frequently hit by natural disasters. The PLA is thus tasked to perform various disaster relief operations in the case of floods, earthquakes, droughts, typhoons, and forest fires. As a country heavily reliant on foreign energy resources and international trade, the security of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) is vital to China’s national economic development. The PLA Navy sees a great need to conduct anti-piracy operations. China is also a victim of terrorist activities, and naturally the PLA is expected to play a bigger role.
To meet these challenges, China urgently needs to build and maintain a strong military force in order to safeguard its own sovereignty, security, territorial integrity and other national interests at home and abroad. However, for the last few decades in the 20th century, China’s military construction had almost been at a standstill, due to a limited defense budget, whereas the world military revolution had accelerated at an increased pace. The result is that the PLA has been lagging behind many of its world counterparts both in terms of hardware and software. China finds it necessary to devote more financial resources to support its military modernization so as to enable the PLA to catch up with the world. Hence the “compensatory growth” of China’s military spending.
Thirdly, as a responsible major power, China is expected to fulfill more international obligations, which calls for an increase in its defense budget.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has been called on to shoulder more international obligations. Despite its status as a developing country, China has done its utmost to fulfill international obligations. With its sustained economic development, China finds it is now possible to play a more active role in providing common security goods and addressing global security issues.
Since 1990, China has contributed the largest number of peacekeeping troops among the five permanent members of the UNSC, sending approximately 20,000 military personnel to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. Since 2008, the PLA Navy has conducted escort operations together with some twenty other navies in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia. In recent years, the PLA has sent relief personnel and materials to disaster-stricken countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan, and the Philippines. A series of joint counter terrorist exercises have been conducted in conjunction with foreign militaries. The latest example of PLA’s contribution was its joint escort operation with the Russian Navy to protect the shipment of Syrian chemical weapons.
As the second largest economy in the world, China is ready to absorb a larger share of international obligations commensurate with its capabilities. Accordingly, the increase of its defense budget will enable the PLA to better fulfill its international obligations.
Finally, as a major actor in the international system, China has no ambition to seek regional or global hegemony.
Today the international community is learning how to live with a rising China. History reveals that a rising power is likely to clash with an established power. That’s why China has been repeatedly questioned on its intentions for the international system. That’s why China’s “strategic transparency” has become a global concern, and China’s defense budget growth has made headlines every year. Ironically, China’s official statement that “China will not seek hegemony even when it becomes strong in the future” does not receive enough acknowledgment. There seems to be a gap between the reality of rising China and its skeptics.
To bridge the gap, it is helpful to distinguish the two concepts of capabilities and intentions. With regard to capabilities, it is true that China has achieved a lot, and will continue to do so in the future. Given its geographic size, population and natural resources, China was born to be a major player in the international system. Therefore, China’s ongoing rise or rejuvenation is natural and inevitable. But capabilities alone do not always mean a threat. The more important thing is intention.
China has no hegemonic ambition, not only because China realizes the zero-sum game has no future in a globalized world, but also because of China’s own cultural tradition and historical memory. The golden rule of Confucius—“Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself,” is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and strategic thinking. Since the 1840s, China had been a victim of hegemonic powers such as Britain, Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union. China therefore has strongly felt the sting of hegemonic powers, thus learning never to behave like a hegemonic world power.
Thus, China’s defense budget growth has been a way to realize its military modernization and overall national rejuvenation. It does not intend to threaten any other country in the world, and therefore there is no need for people outside of China to worry about the growth of China’s defense budget.
Wu Chengyi, Associate Professor, Luoyang Foreign Languages University.