China’s resumption of double-digit growth in its military budget for 2011 will prompt the usual alarms, but it represents no more than a return to business as usual. Last year was only the second since 1989, when Beijing launched its PLA modernization program, that China hasn’t increased its military budget by double digits, in keeping with its long-term economic growth and quest for global and regional influence. The proposed 12.6% increase for 2011 to 583.6 billion yuan ($88.9 billion) is actually a tad below the long-term average of 12.8% since 1989.
That modernization drive took China to being the world’s no 2 defense-spender in 2008 after the U.S., which still spends at least four times as much as China on its military, even accounting for China’s off-budget military spending, which has been guesstimated to take the total to $100 billion-150 billion. Foreign weapons-systems acquisitions, military-related R&D, the paramilitary security forces and some expenses for peacekeeping and disaster relief operations are all off-budget as is income from the PLA’s commercial enterprises and defense industries, and international arms sales.
Part of the latest increase is to cover inflation in pay, benefits and basic provisioning for active military personnel and veterans. Pay and benefits for the 2.3 million-strong PLA already account for 35% of the official military budget. They are expected to see a big increase in step with the civilian pay rises being seen and planned for the economy as a whole (the new five-year plan envisions a tripling of the average wage for factory workers). That is also a sign at this time of significant political, economic and social transition that the Party leadership wants to be sure that it has the PLA onside, just as the higher and more assertive profile of the military in recent months is confirmation of the military’s continued political clout in the highest circles.
Beijing’s claims that its military programmes are purely defensive are not generally accepted, which suggests a continuing arms race in Asia (India, for example, is proposing a larger percentage increase in its military budget for 2011 than China). There is no doubt that there is to be no cutting back on the build-up of China’s military forces, particularly the navy, which is developing submarine and carrier fleets to the extent it can be a power in regional waters, and the logistics capability of the national command and support infrastructure. But China has been doing that for years. The 2011 military budget just keeps it on track.