The Dragon Roars

By Rajaram Panda
March 20, 2014
On 5 March 2014, China announced a 12.2 per cent increase in its military budget for 2014 to 808.23 billion yuan ($132 billion). It marked the fourth consecutive year that China’s military spending has grown by double digits. But given the opaque nature of the Chinese system, the actual defence budget could be a lot more than what its official figures show. The US Defense Intelligence Agency had estimated in February 2014 that China’s actual defense budget in 2013 stood at $240 billion, about double the stated figure the current year. The official figures released by Beijing do not include the cost of new weapons purchases, research or other big-ticket items. By doing so, China is demonstrating the world that it has the long-term goal to emerge as a dominant military power in the Asia Pacific region. Viewed from this perspective, the increase was expected, though the actual figure could be much more.

What does this mean to the region’s security perspective? With so huge sum of money going into the PLA, coupled with its increased spending, anxieties in Asia are expected as it comes at a time when Beijing is increasingly becoming assertive in its diplomatic and military policies. As they raise legitimate concerns, Beijing has responsibility to dispel concerns about its motives.

In an opinion piece published on 6 March 2014 in China’s official newspaper, The People’s Daily, Deng Yushan contested that the onus lies on the US and Japan, not China, to clarify their military intensions. Expressing surprise about an immediate outcry of “concerns” and “worries” from certain countries, Deng debunked such views of hyping the “China threat” theory as false and unwarranted. This was in reaction to what the head of the US Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear, and Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, branded as a lack of transparency in China’s defence outlays. Locklear also questioned China’s “ambiguous” territorial claims in South China Sea and its establishment of an air defense identification zone over East China Sea to accuse Beijing of complicating the security environment of the region. Even Reuters quoted Rory Medcalf, an analyst at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, who saw the increase of China’s defense budget as “worrying news for China’s neighbours, particularly for Japan”. Expressing China’s views, Deng observed that such “concerns” and “worries” are not only “unfounded and misplaced”, but the accusations that China is complicating the security situation amounts to “a gross perversion of truth”. Deng squarely puts the blame on the US and Japan for complicating issues and making the security situation volatile and, therefore, argues that it is Washington and Tokyo and not Beijing who should explain the world their military postures and intentions.

Deng claims that being emboldened by Washington’s rebalancing to the Asia Pacific and by the resurgence of Japanese nationalism, some Asian countries are real menace to regional stability because of their mounting assertiveness. Therefore, he reasons, a militarily strong China will be “a more robust ballast of regional peace and stability”. Claiming China as “a responsible, major stakeholder” in the region, Deng argues, “China needs sufficient strength to prevent hot-headed players from misjudgment and thus forestall conflict and war”. Deng also accuses Japan of being “a recidivous (sic) troublemaker in the region” and finds fault with Abe’s “attempt to deny history” and trying to scuttle the pacifist constitution.

In another opinion piece on 6 March in Global Times, Zhang Yiwei justifies the defence budget hike as it is spurred by increasing global tensions and is consistent with China’s growing economy. At the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang urged the military to increase its preparations for military action in all aspects. According to Xinhua news agency, the increased expenditure will be used to add more high-tech military equipment, improve soldiers’ living conditions, adjust expenses for army maintenance and enhance its capability in anti-terrorism and disaster relief. Shan Xiufa, a research fellow at the Academy of Military Sciences of the PLA observes: “China’s defense expenditure is now climbing partly due to current tensions in the international community and the development of high-tech weapons, which demand more investment”.

China’s military spending is the second largest in the world, behind that of only the US. China justifies that it is a history-proven basic international norm for it to have a military budget that meets its defence needs. It further argues that given the size and its role as a key player in maintaining regional and global peace as well as being the largest personnel contributor to UN peace-keeping missions, China’s defence outlays has to be relatively high. China’s military expenses may be lower than those of major foreign powers both in proportion to the GDP and in per capita terms, (1.4 per cent of GDP in 2013, less than that of Russia or France) but China’s military build-up will spark an arms race in the region. The region already has the military presence of five of the world’s top 10 countries in terms of the size of military spending – the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Besides the US, Japan and South, other countries in the region such as the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam see each military move by Beijing with fear and suspicion.

Notwithstanding Beijing’s justification for the increased defence outlay, Beijing’s move also provides ready excuse to Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to accelerate his push to strengthen the role of the Self Defence Forces. This kind of competition between the two major Asian powers does not augur well at all for peace in the region. Premier Li was not shy in announcing while releasing the 2014 military budget that “China will safeguard its victory of World War II and the post war international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history”.

By increasing its military budget, Beijing is sending a message to the world that it is going to secure and enhance its strategic interests singlehandedly and would not allow its economic growth to be derailed. With 2.3 million strong, China has the largest standing army in the world. Being already a nuclear power, its conventional military capabilities are no less inferior to other countries.

More recently, Beijing has camouflaged its real intention to project power by participating in UN peacekeeping operations and tackling piracy. It has also deployed to sea an aircraft carrier – Liaoning – that it purchased from Ukraine. The world is not blind to such intentions by Beijing. China’s long term goal seems to be to emerge as the world’s single hegemon by displacing the US. Some senior Chinese officials have started openly articulating such a view. Though such an intention does not seem to be realised in the near term as the US military power is much ahead of the Chinese capability, it does shivers the neighbours. Given this, the US, though may be bogged down by internal economic problems, is unlikely to withdraw its presence from the Asia Pacific region. On the contrary, the Chinese aggressive posturing will persuade Washington to take its Asia ‘pivot’ policy more seriously.
Even when Japan increased its defence budget by 3 per cent to $46 billion in 2014, a part of the Abe government’s plan to spend $240 billion between 2014 and 2019, Beijing cried foul. The plan to raise its defence budget over a five-year period was a direct response to China’s defence spending and destabilising behaviour in the East China Sea. However, Japan’s actual planned increases to defence spending for 2014 and 2013 are a mere 2.2 and 0.8 per cent, a minor reversal after ten straight years of annual decreases. Russia could be an exception as its defence spending rose 12 per cent in 2012-13, according to calculations by International Institute for Strategic Studies. The recent developments in Ukraine could precipitate further emphasis on the military by President Putin. But Russia lacks the economic muscle as that of China to sustain such military growth.

Even the US, despite a reduction in its overall defence spending, has decided to deploy 60 per cent of its naval power in the Asia Pacific region, from its earlier 50 per cent. Given China’s increasing muscular power and the recent assertiveness and the declaration of the air defence identification zone in November 2013, the security scenario in the region is developing very volatile by the day. Unless Beijing’s tones down its aggressive posture, a military confrontation involving the US, China and Japan cannot be ruled out. The presence of North Korean nuclear bomb and missiles would further complicate the issue. The economic interconnectedness between regional economies is unlikely to prevent a conflagration as strategic interests would have taken primacy. Can we expect some sane counsel to prevail that would eliminate fear and prevent such a possibility?

Lesson for India

Even when Chinese military strength continues to surge, India continues to lag behind in military preparedness. Its defence budget is much lower than that of China. As compared to the PLA, the Indian military is always subservient to the civilian bureaucracy and has to always beg for allocation of funds. The civil-military relations in India require an immediate relook. It is high time that the military is co-opted in matters of defence planning such as acquisition of weapons, indigenisation and such other reforms. Though the military must remain under political control, it is necessary now than ever before that the military is involved in decision-making on major issues relating to the nation’s security. The resignation of the naval chief over recent naval mishaps on moral grounds should wake up the civilian masters from their long slumber to rethink and revise policy. China must be happily watching the Indian deficiency with glee.

As compared to Indian thinking of securing peace by avoiding conflict, Chinese strategy seems to be to trigger a conflict and then secure peace. There seems to be near consensus in the PLA, in particular among the younger generation, that a small scale conflict with its regional adversaries such as Japan and Vietnam or even the Philippines over territorial issues, something similar to the border war with India in 1962, could be the ideal means to secure lasting peace in the region. The Chinese mandarins probably think that Washington would not risk getting involved if a conflict takes place and that would allow Beijing an easy victory.

But Beijing also seems to be suffering from serious internal contradictions. While Beijing might engage in keeping its domestic house in order, its attention to foreign policy may be subdued. The social unrest may keep the leadership bogged down in addressing them. Its projected annual economic growth of 7.5 per cent will not make the leadership to rejoice either. While Beijing may be expected to rebalance domestic priorities, and rethink its strategies that would allow greater cooperation with other countries as that approach could fetch greater dividend. At the same time, Washington might take this opportunity to seek greater leverage with Beijing to engage to work for cooperative security and persuade Beijing not to seek use of force or threat of force to resolve territorial issues and maritime claims disputes. Any strategy different than this, could prove to be disastrous for all. Can China be expected to see any merit in opting for such a strategy?

NOTE--  Rajaram Panda is The Japan Foundation Fellow at the Reitaku University, Japan. He can be reached

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