China Announces US$178.2 billion Military Budget

Foreign Affairs
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Melbourne: In what is probably the lowest increase in its defence budget in three decades, China has announced a 6.6 per cent growth in its defence budget for this year.

The growth in China’s defence budget would see spending rise from US$167 billion last year to US$178.2 billion, an increase of about US$11 billion. The country has the second-largest defence budget in the world, behind only the United States.

Despite the growth of China’s defence budget being at its lowest, in percentage terms, since the early 1990s, the 6.6 per cent figure only represents a slightly lower figure than the 7-7.5 per cent growth many analysts estimated before the pandemic. In real dollar terms, the US$11 billion increase in defence spending is the fifth-highest increase ever for the country.

It also shows that China is determined that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will remain insulated as much as possible from the negative economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in China’s economy shrinking by 6.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time last year.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said as much during his speech on May 22 at the opening of the annual gathering of its largely rubber stamp parliament. He pledged that the PLA would not be worse off.

“We will deepen reforms in national defence and the military, increase our logistic and equipment support capacity, and promote innovative development of defence-related science and technology,” he told legislators at the opening of the National People’s Congress, which kicked off on May 22 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Li also touched on the issue of Taiwan during his speech, reiterating that China would “resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence.” He also called on the Taiwanese people to “join the mainland in opposing Taiwanese independence and to promote reunification.”

China views Taiwan as a breakaway province, with the self-governing island off its coast having formed its own government in 1949 when Nationalist forces fled there following defeat at the hands of Communists during China’s civil war.

Perhaps tellingly, Li dropped the use of the word “peaceful” when talking of reunification with Taiwan, a departure from decades of using it as the standard expression Chinese leaders used when addressing parliament and mentioning Taiwan. Although China has never renounced the possible use of force for reunification efforts.

Li’s call for reunification came as US Defence Secretary Mark Esper reaffirmed that the country would stand by Taiwan. Speaking on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Esper said the US would “certainly live up to our commitments to Taiwan,” noting that it is also bound by the Taiwan Relations Act enacted by Congress, which pledges to supply Taiwan with weapons it needs for its defence.

If Esper’s grim vision becomes reality, American troops may soon be fighting China, embarking on a new and far larger conflict that would make Afghanistan look like child’s play.

Taiwan has reported that Chinese military activity around the island continues unabated throughout the ongoing pandemic, with Chinese naval vessels and military aircraft regularly operating in international airspace and waters around Taiwan.

China calls the movements routine training exercises. However, the island’s government sees these moves as part of an intimidation campaign against Taiwan and regularly publicises PLA ship and aircraft movements in its vicinity.