China has decided to raise its defense spending by 7.1%, which is the largest increase since 2019. The rise is significant because the country’s economy is expected to grow this year at the lowest level in decades at 5.5%.
China’s defense spending is being carefully watched around the world in view of the atmosphere of political uncertainties caused by the Ukraine war. China has refused to pick sides or condemn the Russian attack. Some experts believe China will look for opportunities to invade Taiwan. Beijing regards Taiwan as a rogue province and has often indicated plans to take it over by force.
“While the world’s attention is diverted to Ukraine, an escalation across the Taiwan Straits, in the South China Sea and along the disputed Himalayan borders with India cannot be ruled out,” Mohan Malik, visiting fellow at the Washington-based Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA) told VOA.
“For the Indo-Pacific, this is indeed the decade of living dangerously,” he said.
China will spend $229.47 billion on defense this year, according to estimates presented to the National People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament, by the country’s premier, Li Keqiang. Its defense budget rose 6.8% in 2021 and 6.6% in 2020.
Analysts said that the actual expenditure will be in the region of $270 billion, and a lot more would be spent on military-related infrastructure, like border roads that are shown under non-defense headings in the budget.
“We will enhance military training and combat readiness, stay firm and flexible in carrying out our military struggle, and safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” Li said.
Making a strong case for the higher defense expenditure, Li said, "Government at all levels must give strong support to the development of national defense and the armed forces, so unity between the military and government and between the military and the people will remain rock solid." He emphasizes the need to modernize the military’s logistics and build a modern weaponry and equipment management system.
China, which has two aircraft carriers, plans to invest in two more. It has engaged in a sea rivalry with the U.S. Navy, which has 11 of them. The U.S.-China rivalry is evident because the U.S. sent aircraft carrier strike groups and amphibious groups into the South China Sea 13 times last year, according to Beijing-based research group the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative.
The Reuters news agency quoted Fu Qianshao, a retired Chinese air force equipment specialist, as saying, “Equipment is needed to fill performance gaps, and aircraft carriers, large warships, stealth fighters, third and fourth generations of tanks are expensive.”
Analysts said China is now forced to spend more on defense-related research and development because the U.S. is cutting off the flow of technology and there are similar actions in some European countries.
China may also reconsider planned arms purchases from Russia, including the proposed acquisition of Ka-52 attack helicopters, because the performance of Russian weapons in Ukraine has reportedly disappointed many arms experts.
A major area of focus is China’s military behavior in its neighborhood. Most of the country’s neighbors, including countries around the South China Sea, feel threatened by the rise in the strength of the People’s Liberation Army, which represents the land army, the navy and the air force.
Malik said China now spends more on its military than the combined military expenditures of Russia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India and Australia. That is significant because China is engaged in military disputes with Japan and India and wants to take over Taiwan.
“The growing power gap and military buildup in Asia doesn’t bode well for regional peace and stability at a time of heightened tensions over unresolved territorial and maritime disputes,” he said.