Given China’s rapid rise in all aspects of national power, as well as its reluctance to release specific details about many important aspects of its military spending, its annual budget announcement rightly attracts worldwide attention. Last week, China revealed its projected 2013 official defense budget: 720.2 billion yuan (roughly $US114 billion), a figure that continues a trend of nominal double-digit spending since 1989 (the lone exception: 2010).
Although China’s limited transparency about specific defense budget line items matters, it shouldn’t distract observers from seeing the bigger picture concerning China’s military development:
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) increasingly has the resources, capabilities, and confidence to attempt to assert China’s interests on its contested periphery, particularly in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas). This development has the potential to seriously challenge the interests of the U.S., its allies, and other partners in the region, as well as access to and security of a vital portion of the global commons—waters and airspace that all nations rely on for prosperity, yet which none own. That’s why the PLA’s development matters so much to a Washington located halfway around the world.
Yet beyond China’s immediate periphery the actual impact of PLA spending growth overall may be far less impressive than the headline numbers suggest. The PLA would need far greater resources and capabilities to pursue high-intensity combat capabilities much further away from China’s borders and the territory it claims. At least at present, Beijing is not prioritizing such capabilities. There’s no need to wait for China to achieve full transparency to see this; manifest trends, properly interpreted, speak for themselves. Meanwhile, the development of lower-end capabilities useful for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as protection of sea lanes against non-state actors, bode well for the PLA’s growing role in cooperative security. Hence, even as the Near Seas become more contested, there is significant potential to build on nascent developments in more distant waters—where Beijing has no claims—and further cooperation among China, the U.S., and other nations.
These are the key characteristics of China’s military development. Properly understood, they can inform constructive responses in a challenging time. Misunderstood and conflated, they can confuse and inflame.
A case in point is commentary about China’s defense budget, a very important issue about which Chinese and foreign media coverage often produces more heat than light. On the one hand, Chinese media reports tend to summarily dismiss reasonable foreign (and some domestic) concerns about the limited transparency of China’s defense spending and rapid military development, failing to recognize the destabilizing effects that such opacity engenders unnecessarily, the potential threat that China’s increasingly capable military poses to its neighbors, and the fact that these neighbors have legitimate rights and interests of their own. Especially in the case of China’s official mouthpieces, there is severely limited room for alternative views or expressions of concern about recent developments and their external consequences; criticisms are routinely dismissed as allegedly insincere machinations of anti-China elements aimed at hyping a “China threat theory” for ulterior motives.