China boosts defense budget seeking 'world-class' military, but tells neighbors not to worry
By SIMON DENYER | The Washington Post | Published: March 5, 2018
BEIJING — China's government said defense spending would rise by 8.1 percent this year, outpacing economic growth and its biggest increase in three years, even as it insists it is no threat to other countries.
President Xi Jinping is attempting to modernize China's armed forces, vowing to turn them into a "world-class force" that is capable of fighting and winning wars.
Defense spending is still about a quarter of U.S. levels, but nevertheless its long-term growth, combined with a more assertive enforcement of China's territorial claims, has rattled some of China's neighbors.
In a keynote address to an annual meeting of China's National People's Congress, Premier Li Keqiang said the country faced "profound changes in the national security environment," necessitating a stronger military.
As a proportion of the economy, China's military spending is around 1.9 percent of gross domestic product in 2016, compared with around 3.3 percent for the United States, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Zhang Yesui, a vice foreign minister and spokesman for the party Congress, said China's defense spending was still lower than that of other major countries on a per capita basis.
"China is committed to a path of peaceful development and China pursues a defense policy that is defensive in nature," he told a news conference. "China's development will not pose a threat to other countries."
But Andrew Erickson, a professor at the Naval War College's China Maritime Institute in Newport, Rhode Island, said the fact that military spending outpaced economic growth was revealing.
"This shows that Xi's grand strategy to 'Make China Great Again' includes not only a 'China dream' generally but also a 'strong military dream' specifically," he said.
Erickson said China has the world's second largest defense budget after the United States, enabling it to achieve the largest and fastest shipbuilding expansion in modern history, the world's largest navy, coast guard, and maritime militia by number of ships, and the world's largest conventional ballistic and cruise missile force.
In its National Defense Strategy issued at the end of last year, the Pentagon accused China - and Russia - of being "revisionist powers" who want to shape the world in accordance with their authoritarian models of government, and pose the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security. It also accused China of seeking "Indo-Pacific regional hegemony," of intimidating its neighbors while militarizing the disputed waters of the South China Sea, and of wanting to establish global pre-eminence at the expense of the United States in the longer term.
But Chinese officials and analysts played down the threat.
Spokesman Zhang said the rise in defense spending is partly to compensate for past insufficiency in spending, and is mainly being used to upgrade equipment, improving the lives of servicemen and -women, and to improve training conditions for troops.
Song Xiaojun, a Beijing-based military commentator, said the rise this year was partly to compensate for personnel laid off as part of a recent reduction in the armed forces by 300,000 troops, while Major General Luo Yuan, vice president of the China Strategic Culture Promotion Association, said the budget was normal for maintaining the army, not a preparation for war.
"China has not had any wars in the past 30 years," he said. "It's building its military to ensure its own safety, so foreign powers don't need to worry."
Ni Lexiong, a military expert from Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said the increase was modest in the face of rising costs, tensions on the Korean Peninsula and a border standoff with India. "Considering such a situation, this symbolic increase is equal to no increase."
But foreign experts were not all convinced, with Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia in Singapore, saying there was a sustained effort to increase funding for the People's Liberation Army, adding that a good part of the rise will go into efforts to increase China's nuclear forces and the military's force projection capabilities.
"We are seeing consistent long-term Chinese investment in the development of military technology, which will increasingly rival or better those of the U.S. or Western countries," he told the Reuters news agency.
The Washington Post's Shirley Feng and Liu Yang contributed to this report.