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The Chinese Defense Budget and Beyond

Mar 11 , 2014
  • Zhou Bo

    Honorary Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

If there is one thing that western journalists would never let go at China’s National People’s Congress, it must be China’s defense budget. This happened again at the 2nd Session of the 12th NPC, after China announced its 2014 official defense spending at 808.23 billion Yuan ($131.57 billion), an increase of 12.2% from the previous year. 

Over years the questions and answers between western journalists and Chinese spokesmen have become a kind of  “why and why-not” peppered with acrimony. When Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang was asked by a Japanese journalist on Japanese Government’s concern over the increase of Chinese defense budget this year, Qin Gang raised his voice: “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is not a child corps equipped with red-tasseled spears. Some outside China hope to see China stay as a boy scout and never grow up. If that is the case, who will ensure our national security and how can the world peace be upheld? If that is the case, will China be tranquil, the region stable and the world peaceful?” 

Such remarks from the Chinese side are understandable. As a sovereign state China has full right to decide how to appropriate budgets of its own. 1.5 percent of its GDP on defense spending is not only low, but lower than many developed countries. Besides, China never asks how any other countries plans and appropriates its defense budgets and therefore doesn’t want to be interfered in what it deems to be totally its internal affairs. 

Above all, China perceives such a need to maintain a two-digit defense budget. China’s surrounding situations have become more volatile, characterized with a nuclearized Korean Peninsula and its tension with Japan and the Philippines over the disputed islands. Apart from national defense requirements, PLA is also involved domestically in disaster relief, counter-terrorism and maintenance of social stability. PLA is mandated by the Constitution to participate in national development. It has begun to undertake more and more overseas missions. 

Although the Chinese side has cited the needs of improving servicemen’s living standard, buying high-tech weapons, investing in R&D, training and restructuring of the armed forces and so on,  “some outside China”, as Qin Gang put it, still won’t buy. They insist to know more, for example, the breakdown of the expenditure. 

The underlying reason is that they associate a rising China with threat or at least, uncertainties. Some western strategists claim that the biggest challenge of the 21st century is to cope with an ever-rising China. Such worries stem largely from realism in international relations that a rising power is bound to challenge an existing power and except for a few rare cases, such a rivalry always end up in wars. The West also holds that democracies don’t fight with one another. For some westerners, the fact that China is indeed a rising power but not a democracy only makes China look more dangerous and intimidating. 

China maintains that it is a peace-loving country and its national defense is defensive in nature. China is not afraid of wars. In the first thirty years since founding of the PRC, China had wars or border conflicts with the U.S., India, Soviet Union and Vietnam. But since China’s reform and opening-up in late 1970’s, China had maintained peace for over 30 years. During the period, China is confronted with serious crises time and again, ranging from the secessionist move in Taiwan masterminded by the former Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian, NATO’s bombardment on the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia to the collision of Chinese J-8 jet fighter with an American EP-3 reconnaissance airplane. China has painstakingly yet successfully managed these crises without resorting to wars. This comes in stark contrast with the U.S. and its allies who were involved in a war every two to three years over the decade. 

Today, the PLA is frequently seen in international scenes. Its global activities are extensive and diversified, including strategic dialogues, personnel training, multilateral exercises, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and counter-piracy. In 2010, PLA even sent a medical team to earthquake-stricken Haiti, a country that has no diplomatic ties with China. In spite of the tension with the Philippines over Huangyan Island, PLA Navy’s hospital ship Ark Peace was sent in November 2013 for 16-days medical aid in Southeastern Philippines after Haiyan, the most powerful typhoon in decade, smashed into the archipelago nation and killed thousands of people. 

PLA is also cooperating with other militaries in the world, bilaterally or multilaterally. In the Gulf of Aden, the Chinese Task Force has worked with some twenty other navies for five years in counter-piracy operation. From January 2014, the Chinese frigate Yancheng and Russian battle cruiser Peter the Great have been working in tandem, escorting Danish and Norwegian ships loaded with Syrian chemical weapons to sail through the territorial sea of Syria to the high sea. 

In Civilization, Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson predicts that the western civilization is in relative decline; the 500 years of Western predominance is coming to an end; and the world’s center of gravity is shifting from West to the East, or more precisely, to China. Such an argument could well be an interesting theme for an international debate at Davos Forum or Boao Forum. But it is true that western countries including the U.S. are cutting defense budgets as a result of staggering economy, but Chinese military is developing by leaps and bounces. 

How much can China contribute to world peace? China believes that it is still a regional power while most countries in the world consider China to be at least a great power, if not superpower. Such a wide gap in recognition comes from the fact that China is both the second largest economy in the world and a developing country in terms of per capita income. This is why China insists that China would make due contributions to the world, but in line with its level of development. However, at the 12TH NPC, world peace and China’s international responsibilities are stressed, like never before. In the 2014 Government Work Report, Premier Li Keqiang declared that China is a responsible power; China will actively participate in international multilateral affairs and play a constructive role in global issues and hot issues. 

This is the first time that “responsible power” is mentioned in the government work report. Is this a turning point? If the answer is “positive”, the world can rest assured that PLA, one of the largest armed forces in the world, will be directed by the horn and play a much greater active role at world stage.  

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with Center of China-American Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science.

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