China's Beefed-Up Defense
Image Credit: Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff

China's Beefed-Up Defense

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China’s annual defense budget is set to double by 2015 and exceed that of all other major Asia-Pacific countries, according to figures from leading defense consultancy IHS Jane’s.

The numbers, which were sent through to me this week, suggest China’s defense budget will soar to $238 billion – more than the next 12 leading Asia-Pacific countries combined, and four times that of second place Japan, which will be spending an estimated $64 billion.

As Rajiv Biswas, chief economist for the Asia-Pacific at IHS Global Insight, noted, Beijing has been broadly able to devote an increasingly large portion of its overall budget towards defense, and “has been steadily building up its military capabilities for more than two decades.”

“This will continue unless there’s an economic catastrophe. Conversely Japan and India may have to hold back due to significant economic challenges. Japan’s government debt and the investment needed after Fukushima will impact defense spend. We will increasingly see budget channeled towards key programs and equipment. India’s government debt and fiscal deficit is very high as share of GDP, and the rupee depreciated significantly in 2011 – all of which will limit India’s defense ambitions.”

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is finishing up a five-day visit to the United States this week, a trip undoubtedly aimed in part at mollifying U.S. concerns over its rise and presenting a friendlier face (although holding this face won’t have been easy, with Xi receiving the expected election year scolding over playing fair and human rights).

One of the concerns the U.S. and others have is China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, an area that China has made expansive claims to, but which is also claimed by countries including Vietnam and the Philippines. The U.S. has insisted that it supports freedom of navigation in the region, a position that irks Beijing, which is keen that Washington respect its “core interests.”

All this ties into the latest defense figures because an increasingly powerful Chinese military may become more emboldened to assert its claims more “robustly.” This is a point picked up by American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Auslin writing in The Diplomat yesterday, who notes potential lessons from the fall of Singapore back in 1942.

“There remains every reason for Washington and Beijing to keep peaceful relations. But history is full of surprises, usually for status quo powers. The United States maintains extraordinary strength and with the right economic growth policies can be the world’s dominant nation for decades to come,” writes Auslin. “But it may not be able to be dominant all the time in regions with rising powers. The lessons of Singapore remind us not to overestimate our strengths and to honestly face up to our weaknesses.”

One question, then, is whether China’s ramped up military spending is likely to be used to assert its claims in the region. I asked Paul Burton, Jane’s senior defense budget analyst, for some details on what exactly the money is set to be spent on. He noted that the country’s military aircraft spending is set to rise from $7.8 billion in 2012 to $11.3 billion in 2015, while Beijing also “continues to bolster its space capabilities, launching the Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft on 3 November and docking it with the Tiangong-1 space laboratory.” 

“These two markets alone are due to increase by nearly $7 billion between 2012 and 2015,” he said. “Both would be regarded as offensive.”

So, is a pumped up Chinese military budget an inevitability that China’s neighbors – and the United States – will have to learn to live with? Not necessarily, according to Flashpoints contributor Trefor Moss.

“It is important to remember that military modernization, for all the headlines it generates, is not Beijing's number one priority,” Moss noted recent in Jane’s Defence Weekly. “National development takes precedence, and in 2011 the internal security budget outstripped the defense budget for the first time. If a period of social and economic instability is approaching, these two areas would definitely be ahead of defense in the queue for extra funds.”

This is unlikely to mean that China’s defense budget is actually cut – it would take more than the global economic slowdowns to make that happen. But with Europe struggling to get its economic act together, and with the United States’ economic recovery still fragile, the possibility of China having to slow defense spending certainly can’t be ruled out.

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