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China set to boost defense amid regional tensions

People's Liberation Army soldiers at Shenyang training base in China, March 24, 2007. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, U.S. Air Force)
March 12, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China is increasing its 2024 defense budget by 7.2% to US$231 billion amid regional tensions and growing rivalry with the United States, marking the third consecutive year of over 7% growth in defense spending.

Since 2015 and under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China’s defense budget has more than doubled, becoming the second-largest globally, despite the economic slowdown. This military spending increase outpaces the government’s economic growth forecast of 5% for 2024.

As “national defense is the security guarantee for the survival and development of a nation,” a stable growth in military expenditures has been maintained throughout the years, a Chinese military spokesperson, Wu Qian, said at the weekend.

The increased defense budget, announced at the National People’s Congress (NPC) last week, will focus on military construction and capabilities; the innovative development of national defense science and technology; military reform; and an improved remuneration policy system, Wu added. 

The increase aligns with Beijing’s goal of achieving a “world-class military” by 2049, as reported by the state-run Xinhua News Agency quoting Xi Jinping  at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017.

“Given the state of China’s economy now, it does appear that Beijing is bent on persisting with its buildup of the People’s Liberation Army despite the economic challenges,” said Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who also warned about the “opacity in China’s decision making.”

Researchers of the China Power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. shared a similar view. 

“While China releases an official defense budget, how much China actually spends on its military is widely debated,” its March report reads in part. 

Despite joining the U.N. voluntary report on military expenditures, China “remains less transparent than many countries,” the report further reads. 

China’s official defense budget for 2022 was approximately US$230 billion, but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated the actual figure that year to be US$292 billion, or almost 27% higher.

The U.S. Department of Defense also noted in 2021 that China’s real military spending may be around 1.1 to 2 times higher than stated in its official budget.

Yet the Chinese military spokesperson Wu insisted that “China’s defense expenditures are open, transparent, reasonable and appropriate.” 

“China actively participates in the United Nations’ military expenditure transparency system and has submitted its military expenditure report for the previous fiscal year to the United Nations every year since 2008,” Wu said. 

Lower than the U.S.

The military budget for 2024 is about 10 times as much as China’s education budget, and almost five times more than the budgets for science and technology.

But the Chinese military spokesperson Wu said compared to the U.S., China’s defense expenditure remains “relatively low in terms of the percentage in GDP, percentage in national fiscal expenditure, and per capita defense expenditure as well as per-service member defense expenditure.”

“China adheres to the path of peaceful development and firmly pursues a defensive national defense policy,” Wu added.

Koh from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies believes that whether China’s defense policy is defensive or offensive, “it requires a debate on several fronts, including strategic and operational.”

“But the fact is that it is acquiring an array of offensive, especially force projection type, capabilities – several of which could be deemed destabilizing in nature,” Koh told Radio Free Asia.

Such a move as the military budget expansion could “fuel regional arms dynamics and consequently a potential arms-tension spiral given the extant geopolitical flashpoints in the region,” he added.   

“Its aggressive behavior against its neighbors such as India and Southeast Asian rivals in the South China Sea should also justify China being seen as a security threat.”

Taiwan reunification

Observers also noted that China’s Premier Li Qiang in his government work report at the opening of the annual parliamentary session last week dropped the mention of “peaceful reunification” when speaking of Taiwan.

But the report pledged that Beijing would be “firm in advancing the cause of China’s reunification.”

China considers the self-ruled island one of its provinces that should be reunited with the mainland but so far Chinese officials have not threatened military action and the word “peaceful,” though was dropped before, was re-installed last year. 

“We should promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and advance the process of China’s peaceful reunification,” said the then-Premier Li Keqiang at the 2023 NPC meeting. Li passed away last October. 

In response to Li Qiang’s government work report, Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jeff Liu said that Taiwan is a sovereign independent country and is not subordinate to the People’s Republic of China, which has never ruled Taiwan.

Koh believes Beijing has also paid close attention to what’s happening in Ukraine since the war started and sought to draw useful lessons to refine its own wartime strategy on Taiwan.

“Taiwan definitely forms a major consideration,” he said. “But it’s also equally important to say that in this context, the primary adversary Beijing is preparing the PLA for isn’t just simply Taiwan per se, but the Americans.”

The U.S.-China rivalry has been dominating the international geopolitical agenda for several years and shows no sign of abating, analysts noted.