One can see pretty much anything one wants in the 2012 defense budget China announced last weekend, and which the National People’s Congress (NPC) will approve this week: more military build-up from an increasingly assertive regional power; catch-up spending for a developing nation’s armed forces still in need of substantial modernization; even a proxy for the expected slowdown in the economy overall. It is arguably all those things, but most of all it is pretty much more of the same. China has had double-digit increases in its official defense budget every year since 1989, with the exception of 2009’s 7.5%.
Ahead of the NPC’s opening, spokesman, Li Zhaoxing announced that defense spending in 2012 would be 670.2 billion yuan ($110 billion), a rise of 11.2% on 2011’s figure. It is the first time the budget has topped $100m, if that arbitrary threshold matters to you. The proposed increase for this year is smaller than last year’s 12.7% rise, reflecting, as promised under the current five-year plan, the slowdown in the overall economy.
This year, for the first time, China says, it is including weapons R&D and acquisition in its numbers, which have in the past been overwhelmingly for personnel pay, maintenance and equipment. Quite what difference this makes to the headline number is unclear. How big a bite, for example, is the new aircraft carrier, or China’s new anti-ship missiles and J-10B jet fighters taking out of the official defense budget, if, indeed, that is where they are being accounted?
As is well accepted, the official defense budget is reckoned to account for less than two-thirds of China’s total military spending. The People’s Armed Police has its own budget, as does the militia. Some, if not all, of both budgets can reasonably be considered military spending. But more opaque is the question of how much is being spent under the aegis of the space program and the development of the strategically important “national champion” industries on R&D that has dual military-civilian use, or in the space program’s case, pure military use.
Not only does China still spend less than a third as much on defense as the world’s largest military power, the U.S. (however you add up the figures), much of the operational deployment of China’s new military toys is still years away. Nor are its aircraft, missiles and ships yet comparable in the aggregate with those in the most advanced fighting forces, despite the ambitious development of a huge domestic aerospace and defense contracting industry.
Pravda reports from Russia that China is trying to buy 48 of Russia’s new Su-35 fighter jets. The $4 billion deal is being held up Moscow’s concerns that their advanced frontline fighter will be cloned by the Chinese military, as happened with its Su-27 (the inspiration for China’s J-10) and the Su-30 (the J-11). If this deal comes off, it would be the first time that Beijing has bought foreign fighters for the PLA Air Force in more than a decade. What is unclear is whether this is an attempt to leap-frog to the future or a deal that is necessary because domestic development is falling behind. Aircraft engines and radar systems, we are told, are the critical areas where progress is not as rapid as hoped.
That may be one reason that President assumptive Xi Jinping reportedly rebuffed U.S. President Barack Obama’s suggestion during his recent visit to Washington that the two countries’ military hold regular talks, as their economic and security officials do. A peep behind the curtain may reveal a less than flattering picture for the world’s second most expensive military force. Xi, who has close ties with the army–his father was one of Mao’s revolutionary generals before falling from grace–will not want to embarrass the PLA, and especially not while he is assuming the reins of power. And just as he will want to keep his military onside during the transition, he will want to keep America’s off-balance and guessing to the extent he can.
There is no doubt that Beijing will continue to build-up its military forces, particularly the navy, which is developing submarine and carrier fleets to the extent it can be a power in regional waters, the logistics capability of the national command and support infrastructure, and the capacity to fight in space and cyberspace. It wants a modern, self-sufficient fighting force by the early 2020s. The 2012 military budget just keeps it marching in that direction.