China plans to increase its defense spending by 6.6 percent this year, the lowest in years as it battles an economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government said yesterday.
The figure is down from the double-digit-percentage increases of a few years ago that have given China the second-biggest defense budget in the world behind the US.
The spending is to be 1.3 trillion yuan (US$182 billion), according to the Web site of the National People’s Congress, which opened its annual session yesterday.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the world’s largest standing military and in recent years, it has added aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and stealth fighters to its arsenal, most of them produced domestically.
China said that the increases in spending would mostly go toward improving conditions for troops, while foreign analysts said that actual spending could be much higher, as many items are not included in the official budget.
Defense outlays last year rose by 7.5 percent to US$168 billion, while independent experts estimated that real spending on the military exceeded US$220 billion after adding in off-budget expenses.
This year’s spending is to expand China’s navy, and to acquire advanced aircraft and other weapons to help Beijing enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and expand its military presence in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Another key priority is maintaining a credible threat against Taiwan.
“We will ... resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) said in a policy address.
The increase comes despite a 6.8 percent contraction in the world’s second-largest economy in the first quarter of the year and a swelling government budget deficit required to help meet targets such as creating 9 million new urban jobs.
This seems to show the vast importance that Beijing places on the military as a symbol of China’s growing power and ability to defend what it identifies as its core national interests, something that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has made his highest priority.
It also helps demonstrate that the COVID-19 pandemic has not thrown off track Xi’s aim of establishing China as the primary regional power and diminishing the presence of its key rival, the US.
The PLA was portrayed as playing a pivotal role during the height of the pandemic in China by dispatching medics and building field hospitals, something recognized in Li’s report to the congress.
“The people’s armed forces demonstrated fine conduct by reacting swiftly to the [Chinese Communist] Party’s commands and shouldering heavy responsibilities in COVID-19 control,” Li said.
The government is to strengthen support in logistics and equipment, and “promote innovative development of defense-related science and technology,” while ensuring that “unity between the military and the government, and between the military and the people, “remains rock solid,” he said.
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