China's defence spending only natural, but it must explain why

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:02am

China's defence budget is greeted by its neighbours and the US the same way each year. The amount is seen as being excessive, doubts are expressed that the figure is accurate and alarm is raised that military expansion and territorial claims amount to a threat, not the peaceful rise that Beijing has promised. But such concerns are unjustified and misplaced. While more has to be done about transparency, a country so large and important to the world has to have a military that is in keeping with its needs and significance.

No country has as many people or land borders as long. As trade, investment and need for resources grows, so, too, does the necessity to protect interests. With rising global power comes international expectations to participate in peace, security and humanitarian operations; China already has about 2,200 personnel involved in UN peace-keeping missions, helps protect shipping lanes from pirates and is steadily raising its profile in the wake of overseas natural disasters. With the need to modernise and expand capability, this year's planned 12.2 per cent rise in defence spending to 808.2 billion yuan (HK$1.02 trillion) is in such circumstances easily justified.

The amount is less than 2 per cent of GDP, below what most of the world's big military powers allocate. Only Japan and Germany, bound by pledges after their second world war defeats, have lower percentages. While China has since 2007 been the world's second-largest military spender, the level is still far behind the US, which budgets more than four times as much, the equivalent of 4.4 per cent of its GDP. Such facts are ignored by rivals and territory claimants as they rush to criticise.

China's increased spending contrasts with declines in most developed countries, who are struggling with weak economies. But the reverse is the case in Asia where, as the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies noted last month, "the growth of defence budgets is accelerating and military procurements are rising". But it also indicated that while most of the region is spending more on defence, China's expenditure was far outpacing neighbours. One analyst put the total at about three times as much as India and more than Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam combined.

As necessary as Beijing may see such spending, it also needs to better explain its thinking. Unease about intentions has raised tension and contributed to a regional arms race. Greater transparency would go a long way to allaying concerns.