China’s defense budget will grow 7 percent in the coming year, representing the slowest pace for year-on-year growth since 2010. China made the announcement on Saturday, ahead of the Sunday opening of the country’s National People’s Congress, the national legislature.
Early on Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang framed the broader economic course for China in the coming year, including by unveiling a lower overall GDP growth target of 6.5 percent — a small, but notable decrease from the current target range of 6.5 to 7 percent. (China posted 6.7 percent growth in 2016.) While defense spending will still increase, the rate at which it will do so will fall commensurate with the country’s broader expectations for slower overall economic growth.
The new defense budget from China comes despite the country’s rapid ongoing military modernization and expansion, especially for the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, and ongoing tensions in the East and South China Seas.
Moreover, Beijing’s budget contrasts with the recently unveiled proposal by the Trump administration in the United States that seeks to increase the U.S. defense budget — already the largest in the world in absolute terms — by 9 percent. The Chinese proposal suggests that China won’t use the Trump administration’s proposed increase as a pretense to accelerate its military buildup or enter an arms race with the United States.
Details about the military budget remain slim, however, despite Saturday’s announcement. Fu Ying, the spokesperson for the Chinese National People’s Congress, gave few details beyond noting the overall 7 percent expansion. Fu emphasized that China would still seek the peaceful resolution of all international and regional disputes.
“At the same time, we need the ability to safeguard our sovereignty, and our rights and interests,”Fu said. “In particular, we need to guard against outside forces intervening in these disputes.” Asked about the South China Sea, where a recently arrived U.S. carrier group is currently undertaking regular patrols, Fu said “As to how the situation develops in the future, that depends on U.S. intentions,” Fu said. “American actions in the South China Sea have a definite significance as an indicator of how the wind is blowing.”
Official Chinese defense budget numbers have come under question in recent years, with the U.S. Department of Defense and numerous independent research institutes offering their own estimates of Chinese spending — all of which are higher than the officially release figures. China spent $146.6 billion on its 2016 budget and $144.2 billion in 2015, per its official figures. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, despite the increase in absolute terms in recent years, China’s military spending as a proportion of its overall government spending has declined since 2000.