China, facing what it sees as increasing military pressure from the US, is likely to shrug off the pall hanging over its economy from the COVID-19 pandemic and increase its defense budget again this year.
China’s military spending, due to be announced when the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress finally opens on Friday, is closely watched as a barometer of how aggressively it will beef up its military capabilities.
China set a 7.5 percent rise for the defense budget last year, outpacing what ended up as full-year GDP growth of 6.1 percent in the world’s second-largest economy.
Its economy shrank 6.8 percent in the first quarter of this year from a year earlier, as the novel coronavirus spread from Wuhan, and the government has said economic conditions remain challenging.
Despite the pandemic, the armed forces of China and the US have remained active in the disputed South China Sea and around Taiwan.
Xie Yue (謝岳), a professor of political science at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University and a security expert, said that while it is hard to predict if the defense budget would grow at a higher or lower rate than last year, it would definitely rise.
“From the national security point of view, China needs to appear strong to the West, especially the United States, which has been putting more pressure on China on all fronts, including militarily,” he said.
The pandemic has worsened already poor ties between Beijing and Washington, with accusations from US President Donald Trump’s administration of a Chinese cover-up and delayed release of information about the outbreak.
The Chinese Ministry of State Security warned in a recent internal report that China faced a rising wave of hostility in the wake of the outbreak that could tip relations with the US into armed confrontation.
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense did not respond to a request for comment.
China reports only a raw figure for military expenditure, with no breakdown. It is widely believed by diplomats and foreign experts to under-report the real number.
Taking the reported figure at face value, China’s defense budget last year — 1.19 trillion yuan (US$167.52 billion) — was about a quarter of the US defense budget last year, which stood at US$686 billion.
Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡錫進) yesterday wrote in a WeChat post that he anticipated the defense budget would rise.
“China needs more military power as a deterrent, to ensure the US will not act on its impulses because of unbearable costs,” Hu said.
Experts point out that the benefit of increasing defense spending when the economy is weak is that it can give the economy a much-needed shot in the arm, with manufacturing struggling and domestic consumption slack over worries about job security.
China’s defense spending last year represented slightly more than 5 percent of total government expenditure and about 1.2 percent of GDP for the year.
Xie said investing in home-grown military technology research and development would be money well-spent, as tightening sanctions meant it was increasingly hard for China to buy technology on the global market.
“With nationalist sentiment running high, not only will the increase in military expenditure not be criticized too much, it may even lead to citizens feeling more pride in the country,” he said.
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