Smallest defence budget rise in 2 decades
Minnie Chan in Beijing
China's military spending for this year will rise by 7.5 per cent, the smallest defence budget increase in nearly two decades.
'The proposed military budget for 2010 is 532 billion yuan (HK$604 billion), a 37.1 billion yuan increase, which is 7.5 per cent up from actual defence spending in 2009,' Li Zhaoxing, spokesman for the National People's Congress, said yesterday.
'Compared with the past few years, the increase will drop.'
The announcement came as a big surprise to overseas commentators.
Li said the small defence spending increase was still a 'reasonable' figure.
'China is committed to peace,' Li said. 'The sole purpose of China's military strength is to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.'
The figure breaks a string of double-digit increases, with the average budget increase over the past decade at nearly 15 per cent.
The People's Liberation Army had a 14.9 per cent spending increase last year and 17.6 per cent in 2008. The last time the military budget's growth was so small was 1991, when it was 7.2 per cent.
Last year, the PLA also announced a series of ambitious weapons-development projects last year, including a fourth-generation fighter jet named the J-14, a new generation of large destroyers with a displacement of more than 10,000 tonnes and missile defensive systems.
Beijing has also shown interest in developing its first aircraft carrier, believed to cost 4.8 billion yuan and of a 'medium' size, along the same lines as the Varyag class, a former Soviet carrier type with a displacement of 65,000 tonnes.
The PLA Navy's participation in the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and now its leading role in the co-ordination of it also require more money.
PLA General Luo Yuan , also a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said the military budget had achieved its status because of nearly two decades of double-digit growth.
'It's impossible to let it continue to grow without limitations,' he said.
He added that the global financial crisis was one of the key reasons the defence budget increase had to be cut back this year. It also affected China's own growth in gross domestic product, which was only 8.1 per cent last year.
Professor Ni Lexiong , a military expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said China had also realised its double-digit increase had escalated the arms race and was causing concern among its neighbours and also in the West.
'The double-digit increase has stirred up the 'China threat' theory worldwide over the past few years,' he said. 'Some of our neighbouring countries, like India and Vietnam, also followed up to increase military spending and even bought fighter jets and submarines from Russia.'
Ni agreed the global financial crisis had provided a good chance for China to ease the growth in military spending.
'Of course, the warm cross-strait relations since Ma Ying-jeou grabbed power [in Taiwan] and attempts by the previously hostile US and Japan to improve ties with us all provide a good environment for us to slow the increase.'
A Shanghai-based PLA expert who requested anonymity agreed that international concern about China's rapid growth in military spending had been the reason behind the smaller increase this year.
'All the figures involved political considerations,' he said.
'The number is being reduced now just because Beijing's leadership has realised that our double-digit growth has made a great impact around the world, which has damaged our national image a lot in the past few years.'
Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Defence Review who predicted the PLA's military spending this year would be more than 15 per cent, questioned the accuracy of the budget figure announced yesterday.
'A 7.5 per cent increase is an incredible number. No one would believe such a small figure,' he said.
'I believe Beijing is using tricks to hide its real spending - for example, shifting all weapons research and developmental costs to the scientific and educational sectors.'
Chang also said the traditional lack of transparency of the PLA budget had raised suspicions overseas.
'It never shows us how much it spends on weapons purchases, how much it uses in arms research and development and other sectors,' Chang said.
Yin Zhuo, a PLA major general and delegate to the CPPCC, said China was still following Deng Xiaoping's dictum that the country should keep a low profile and 'never take the lead'.
'I agree that we need to try to improve our transparency, but we don't need to follow the standard of Western countries, especially the US,' he said.
'The US shows everyone its budgets and weapons because its aim is to show off its power and threaten other countries. But we Chinese never want to be the number one in the world.'