Home' Defence Review Asia : DRA March/April 2010 Contents The defence budget for China is set
to grow by a further 7.9% during
2010 – a rate of expansion that
would be alarming in many other countries.
However, this increase – officially to around
US $80 billion per annum and unofficially
considerably higher - is nevertheless a slower
rate of growth than at any time in the last 15
years and so requires some interpretation.
Some facts are undeniable, most
importantly that China now spends more on its military than any
country on earth except the United States and this relativity looks
likely to continue for some time. Other significant spenders such as
Russia and Britain have fallen way behind China and it would take
some form of domestic economic miracle for either of them to catch
up – even if they wanted to do so. The only country that has the
short-term potential to match Chinese expenditure is Japan, though is
constitutionally limited from doing so.
What is also clear is that Chinese military expenditure, as a
proportion of the economy remains modest at around 2%, though
this figure is imprecise because of the opaque nature of the budget.
As Beijing is fond of pointing out, this is much less than the United
States. Historically, Washington has run defence spending at a massive
4% of GDP – explaining why the US now spends more on defence
than all of the other countries in the world combined.
However, while the US is very open about military expenditure –
except for black programs – the same cannot be said for China. The
precise breakdown of defence spending is not made public and some
quite large items are not included, particularly purchases from other
countries. It might also be the case that Chinese sales of military
hardware internationally are also excluded from the budget, even
though various branches of the People’s Liberation Army own many of
the factories producing the goods.
Some analysts have concluded that the real Chinese defence
budget is more than the US $100 billion mark – possibly much more.
Comparisons with the US become increasingly fuzzy when factoring
in “relative purchasing power” issues, where it can be convincingly
argued that China receives more bang for its buck. Another factor
is that the US budget is in 2 parts – the basic defence spend and
then supplemental amounts to support current operations such as
Afghanistan and Iraq. The underlying US budget is therefore often
around $200 billion less than the grand total.
But while the defence expenditure of the 2 countries is closing, the
capability gap remains vast. Even if China eventually catchs up with
the US in absolute spending terms it will have to maintain that effort
for many years to pay for a huge arsenal which cannot be created
overnight. For example, even if China starts building an aircraft carrier
in the very near future, it is likely to be several decades before it is
anywhere near able to match the 10 or 11 aircraft carrier battle groups
routinely at the disposal of the United States Navy.
The concern of many defence planners is the possibility – no
matter how remote – that China might manage some form of
breakthrough in a critical military technology that would allow their
armed forces to rapidly achieve an unexpected qualitative edge. One
such theoretical possibility is that China will suddenly field a 5th
generation fighter aircraft.
China has been working on aircraft technologies for some time and
even though the backbone of the PLA–AF remains imported Russian
aircraft, Beijing has invested heavily in domestic programs as well. A
sobering reminder of what can possibly be achieved is the first flight
of the Russian-Indian PAK-FA in February – an aircraft which has
some superficial similarities to both the F-22 and the JSF. Alarmist
predictions that this aircraft will immediately upset the world balance
of power seem far-fetched. As many countries have discovered, there
is a huge difference between testing a hand-built highly customized
prototype and actually manufacturing, equipping and supporting
significant numbers of such systems. Nevertheless, development of
the PAK-FA will obviously be monitored with intense interest.
While Chinese military expenditure still seems to remain within the
boundaries of what is reasonable, it should also be remembered that
in the increasingly vital field of research and development, Beijing
is surging ahead. While external events such as the global financial
crisis probably had an impact on slowing the rate of military growth,
the same cannot be said for R&D as in 2010 this will increase by 18%.
Undoubtedly some of this expenditure will be on military and dual-
China has many legitimate security concerns, both internal and
external. The Communist Party shows absolutely no signs of giving up
its monopoly hold on power with internal dissent and disorder being
a constant concern. With more than 1.2 billion people of diverse ethnic
and religious backgrounds the challenges of internal security are not
trivial, as events in Urumqi last year clearly highlighted.
The slight slowing in official military expenditure for 2010 will
be quietly welcomed in the region. Countries as diverse as Japan,
India and Australia – as well as the United States – have all made
their nervousness about China’s growing muscle apparent. All
will be hoping that China does not return to double-digit defence
expenditure growth anytime soon.
Leader: China’s modest growth Kym Bergmann / Singapore
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