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Unveiling China’s Defense Budget

Apr 12 , 2013

China’s defense spending is often the cause of heartburn and confusion in Washington, but top analysts argued Monday that the U.S. should spend more time examining the People’s Liberation Army’s rate of growth, its strong commitment to military modernization, and its mixed message to foreign powers about its intentions.

China is spending more on high-tech, yet unproven systems, such as stealth fighters, in an effort to keep up with the Pentagon. But that ambition is eating at its wider budget, said James Mulvenon, director of Defense Group, Inc.’s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis. Additionally, he said, the cost for PLA personnel has risen from about one-third of its budget to roughly one-half, in an effort to increase the quality of the Chinese force.

China, last month, released its annual public disclosure of its military spending at $119 billion. That compares to roughly $526 billion in defense spending that President Obama reportedly will request for fiscal 2014, according to Bloomberg. There was little fear on Monday about what China plans to do with its military, and even a tepid appreciation that China has become more transparent and willing to talk about its intentions. But U.S. analysts remain frustrated that Beijing continues to say one thing, but do another, with the PLA.

“The defense budget issue is just one of dozens of examples where Chinese strategic communications have failed to ameliorate its regional neighbors, to ameliorate the concerns the United States has,” Mulvenon said, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In fact, I would argue that never before has there been greater cognitive dissonance in our relationship with China.”

Mulvenon said China is “completely outdated” in not matching its messaging with its deeds, especially in today’s in modern media world.

“It is difficult to maintain an anti-piracy task force in [the Horn of Africa], and yet continue to claim stridently that you will never have overseas bases, when clearly the replenishment requirements of doing that require you to find some sort of a hybrid solution.”

“We’re looking at an explosion of naval construction,” Mulvenon said, “that again …will have to be explained. And it can’t be explained simply as defense of the motherland if, in fact, you are engaging in wide-ranging global deployments.”

Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the Naval War College, pointed to China’s sustained growth rates, which he claimed reached an annual average of 16.5 percent in the last decade and leveled off at 10.4 percent in 2011.

“Over the past decade, these double digit nominal increases have quadrupled spending, and they have made the PLA budget second in size only to that of the U.S. military budget,” he said, “albeit several hundred billion dollars less.”

“The PLA budget’s growth rate is truly the envy of the U.S. and its allies, whose defense budgets are either stagnating or declining absolutely,” he said, with Japan being the rare exception, having a 0.8 percent growth increase in defense spending.

Although the realities of China’s actual capabilities, which lag far behind the U.S., remain unimpressive to many in Washington, Erickson said Americans are mistaken to compare Chinese military hardware to any “gold standard.”

“How good is good enough?” Erickson said. “Look at the sheer amount of resources and programs that China is throwing out there. It may not all be efficiently spent, but no other major country with the possible exception of the U.S. is able to do this.”

China has seven major military shipbuilding programs, for example, and is sustaining multiple aircraft development programs.

The “sheer dynamism” of that effort, compared to any other country outside of the U.S., Erickson said, was “striking.” 

Kevin Baron reports on the people and policies driving the Pentagon and the national security establishment in The E-Ring for Foreign Policy. 

© 2013. Foreign Policy.

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