Military Tension

Beijing to ramp up defense spending to combat the US

South China Sea has become a major global hotspot as the PLA expands its naval presence in the region

Ramping up defense spending has been a priority for China in the past decade.

Amid strained relations with the United States, Beijing’s budget jumped 6.6% last year to 1.27 trillion yuan or US$178.6 billion. The rise was part of a decade-long modernization push by President Xi Jinping.

New warships have been added to an expanding navy as the People’s Liberation Army increases its presence in the South and East China Seas.

A rapid upgrade of the PLA Air Force has also emboldened Xi’s ruling Communist Party when to comes to Taiwan. The CCP has threatened to take the democratic island by force if necessary as Beijing considers it a renegade province.

“China is facing the most severe security situation since the Korean War. Looking at public opinion, it has become more urgent to take back Taiwan militarily. That is why the budget will surely rise sharply,” Ni Lexiong, a retired professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said as reported by the Reuters news agency.

Figures for 2021 are likely to be laid out at the National People’s Congress in Beijing next week.

The facts:

  • Military spending by the United States still dwarfs China’s defense budget.
  • Washington earmarked $732 billion, or about 3.4% of GDP, on defense in 2019.
  • In comparison, China invested $261 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
  • Beijing’s real military spending could be far higher than official figures, military experts pointed out.
  • Official numbers fail to take into account research and development, and overseas arms sales from Russia.

What was said: China’s economy grew by 2.3% last year amid the Covid-19 pandemic. It was the only major economy not to contract. But problems still exist in the next 12 months. “This year will be tough for the PLA. [Beijing] needs to balance its spending between dealing with Covid-19 recovery and achieving its modernization goals,” Liang Guoliang, a Hong Kong-based military observer, said as reported by the South China Morning Post, after predicting an 8% rise.

Less bang for Beijing’s bucks: Li Jie, a senior researcher at the PLA’s Naval Military Studies Research Institute, was not so bullish. His estimate runs to an increase of between 6% and 7%. “[Stiil,] the navy, air force and the rocket force will need more [funding] to upgrade and replace [their obsolete] weapons and equipment under the PLA modernization program,” Li said.

Delve deeper: Chairman Xi has revolutionized China’s blue water fleet and rolled out state-of-the-art fighter jets, as well as new hypersonic missiles. In 2019, the nation had a surface fleet of 335 ships, which was 55% larger than 2005, according to a US Congressional Research Service report. In comparison, the US Navy had 293 ships in its battle force but was vastly superior in carrier groups. 

Arms race: “There is no doubt that [China has] been investing hugely in this. In recent years, they’ve been outbuilding everybody,” Nick Childs, a senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said as reported by National Defense

China Factor comment: Beijing’s build-up has turned the South China Sea into a global hotspot. In response, the US Navy has conducted freedom of navigation exercises, spearheaded by carrier groups such as the Theodore Roosevelt and the Nimitz. Later this year, a United Kingdom carrier group with F-35 fighter jets will be involved in a similar mission. China has continued to warn the West about such exercises, claiming vast areas of the 1.3 million-square-mile waters as its “sovereign territory.” Up to $3 trillion of trade traverses through this maritime superhighway. The stakes have never been higher.

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