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China Increases Defense Budget, Adopts Tougher Language for Taiwan

Chinese soldiers march past the Great Hall of the People during a preparatory session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, March 4, 2024.
Chinese soldiers march past the Great Hall of the People during a preparatory session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, March 4, 2024.

China announced a 7.2% increase in its defense budget on Tuesday, which has more than doubled under President Xi Jinping's 11 years in office, as Beijing hardens its stance on Taiwan.

Since Xi became president in 2013, the defense budget has ballooned to $230 billion this year from $100 billion.

The increase mirrors the rate presented in last year's budget and is well above the government's economic growth forecast for this year. The growth target for 2024 is about 5%, similar to last year's goal, according to the government report.

Bonny Lin, senior fellow for Asian security and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the increase in the military budget is meant to demonstrate "reasonable" and "steady" growth in China's defense spending.

"The actual PRC [People's Republic of China] proposed defense budget is over $7 billion more compared to last year," she said. “The official PRC budget only captures a portion of the total Chinese spending on defense national security, and the 7.2% figure showcases China's desire to continue significant investment and modernization in the PLA [People's Liberation Army]."

Lin said China's officially announced defense budget figure has to take into account different pressures.

"On one hand, it would be difficult for China to publicly announce a higher defense spending, given the economic problems that China faces domestically. Beijing is also wary that a significantly increased defense spending could spark alarm and international concern that China is set on using military force abroad," she said.

"On the other hand, a lower rate of defense spending growth could signal less PRC resolve and ability to protect and advance Chinese interest. A lower rate would also not match China's elevated external threat perception."

Chong Ja Ian, assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, told VOA the increase may be symbolic.

"He [Xi] hopes to express to the outside world his emphasis on the country's security. Especially in this situation, where economic growth is slowing down, he is still willing to invest in national defense. Then this may be hoping that other countries will not challenge China in terms of security and military."

Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund's Indo-Pacific program, told VOA, "The decision to hike defense spending by 7.2% at a time when China's economy is facing severe headwinds underscores Xi Jinping's commitment to hitting the three benchmarks he has laid out for the PLA 2027, 2035 and 2049."

In 2021, Xi set the military modernization goal for 2027 as 1: "accelerating the integrated development of mechanization, informatization and intelligentization;" 2: "accelerating the modernization of military doctrine, organizational form, military personnel and weapons and equipment;” 3: "adhering to quality first and prioritizing efficiency;" and 4: "promoting the simultaneous improvement of national defense strength and economic strength."

China is looking to ensure PLA modernization is "basically complete" in 2035 and build a "world-class" military by 2049.

China also officially adopted tougher language against Taiwan, dropping the mention of "peaceful reunification" in a government report delivered by Premier Li Qiang at the opening of the National People's Congress on Tuesday.

The report emphasized that China wants to "be firm" in unifying the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Previous statements from the annual meeting only vowed to "resolutely oppose" Taiwan independence.

"It's a sign that China is set on reunification with Taiwan through all means possible and is willing to adopt all means possible," Lin said. “Peaceful was dropped prior to the word reunification, but the government work report still stated that China "will promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations."

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council on Tuesday urged China to accept the fact that the two sides are not subordinate to each other and urged China to create healthy cross-Strait exchanges.

The island's defense minister said on Tuesday that Taiwan's armed forces would increase the number of missile drills they hold this year.

Chuang Chih-wei contributed to this report.