China will beef up its military budget by 12.7 percent this year, the government said yesterday, a return to double-digit spending increases that will stir regional unease.
The country’s growing military clout has coincided with a more assertive diplomatic tone, evident in spats last year with Japan and Southeast Asia over disputed islands and in rows with Washington over trade, the yuan and human rights.
National People’s Congress (NPC) spokesman Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) said the defense budget would increase from 532.1 billion (US$81 billion) yuan last year to 601.1 billion yuan this year. The budget went up by just 7.5 percent last year, after a long period of double-digit hikes.
Many experts believe China’s actual spending on the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is far higher than the figures the government reports.
“It’s widely accepted that these figures bear only a marginal relationship with the actual overall spending. Overall, it means the Chinese are saying we are going to [boost] our defense budget, whatever the real numbers are,” said Dean Cheng, a China security expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
China, now the world’s second-largest economy, often points out that its defense spending pales in comparison with the US and that its military upgrades are for defensive purposes.
The Pentagon last month rolled out a record base budget for the next fiscal year of US$553 billion, up US$22 billion from the level enacted last year.
However, Beijing has made some eye-catching moves in recent months, none more so than conducting its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet when US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was visiting Beijing in January.
China could also launch its first aircraft carrier this year, according to Chinese military and political sources, a year earlier than US military analysts expected.
“The PLA is an important and powerful force in decision-making and there is obviously a desire to signal to the Chinese public and Chinese nationalists that China is going to continue to get stronger,” said Rory Medcalf of Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.
That signal may prompt greater wariness from neighbors.
Japan said on Thursday it scrambled military jets this week after Chinese naval planes flew near disputed islands in the East China Sea, although they did not enter Japanese airspace.
The Philippines also demanded an explanation from China over an incident on Wednesday in a disputed area in the South China Sea, where it says two Chinese patrol boats threatened to ram a survey ship.
Indeed, other nations are upgrading their forces in response to China’s build up.
India increased its annual defense spending by its 11.6 percent this week and is shopping for advanced fighter jets, transport aircraft, surveillance helicopters and submarines.
Some officials in Taiwan are especially alarmed. China has about 1,400 missiles aimed at the island, according to the government.
“China’s military power is now growing quickly,” said Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator Lin Yu-Fang (林郁方), who is also a member of the Legislative Yuan’s defense committee, in response to the Chinese budget number.
“The United States should help us turn the situation around, and we hope European countries will also sell us advanced weapons,” he said.
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