For the first time in four years, China’s Ministry of National Defense on Wednesday released a white paper on the country’s overall national defense strategy, disclosing that, before 2017, its military spending accounted for 1.28 percent of its GDP.
The lengthy 27,000-word white paper, titled "China’s National Defense in the New Era," totals six chapters.
It is the first comprehensive white paper since the 18th National Congress of China Communist Party, held in 2012, and the 10th one since the Chinese government released its first defense white paper in 1998.
Some analysts said the white paper has demonstrated China’s efforts to regain international security narrative. Others, however, add that it’s nothing new, but more about repeating consistent Chinese narratives while its defense budget remains opaque.
Compared to the last white paper in 2015, “this new white paper is designed to really facilitate China’s drive to what I call to earn the regional security narrative. The white paper is full of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping’s slogans,” said Alexander Neill, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Following a period of quite considerable defense reform, this white paper is setting out its achievement in terms of reforms but it’s also offering a new vision for regional security with Chinese characteristics,” added the Singapore-based expert.
During a news conference on Wednesday morning, China insisted its armed forces are defensive in nature.
That, some observers believe, shows China’s attempts to dismiss international criticism that it is a rising military threat.
According to Hu Kaihong, spokesman at China’s State Council Information Office, the white paper responds to the international community’s interest in the development of China's armed forces and elaborates on the distinctive feature of China’s national defense policy, which is defensive in nature.
A military threat?
“China’s national defense in the new era is never seeking hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence. And China’s national defense expenditure has been reasonable and appropriate,” Hu said.
According to the white paper, from 2012 to 2017, China’s defense expenditure increased from US$98 billion to $152 billion.
During the period, China’s GDP and government expenditures grew at an average rates of 9.04 percent and 10.43 percent respectively while its defense expenditures increased by an average of 9.42 percent.
Meanwhile, China’s defense expenditures accounted for 5.26 percent of government expenditures on average and 1.28 percent of its GDP, the latter of which compared to Russia’s 4.4 percent, the U.S.’s 3.5 percent and India’s 2.5 percent.
“The percentage of China’s defense expenditure in GDP remained stable and grew in coordination with the increase of government expenditure,” the white paper said.
It added that China ranks the sixth among those big defense-spending countries in terms of defense spending as a percentage of GDP on average and is the lowest among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Opaque defense spending
But Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based political risk analyst, refuted the comparison as a distortion given other great military powers have international peacekeeping obligations.
The security presence of the U.S., for example, is broadly welcomed around the world whether that’s through weapon sales or actual presence of U.S. personnel or equipment, he said.
“Broadly speaking, there’s still a preference around the world for a U.S. [security] presence. Where China is expanding its presence, it seems to be very bilateral, rather than [a] regional request,” Feingold added, referring to China’s naval base in Djibouti as an example.
Feingold said the white paper is nothing new but China’s consistent military narrative.
He further questioned if China’s disclosure of military expenditures between 2012 and 2017 was updated and transparent enough.
He said that some of China’s military spending may not be reported accurately or there remain secret budgets through Chinese state-owned enterprises which engage in research and development or even products — all that he said may not show up in the actual budget numbers.
While the white paper also seeks to show just how intense China’s military reforms have been since it was introduced by Xi, what’s missing in the paper is the actual turbulence that has happened to the Chinese military in the past couple of years, Neill said.