KATHMANDU, March 4: China’s official military budget will grow by about 10 percent in the coming year, a legislative spokeswoman said Wednesday, amid unease among Beijing’s neighbors about its growing might and territorial ambitions.
The increase to about $145 billion in spending would mark the fifth year in a row of double-digit increases despite the country’s slowing economic growth, which fell to 7.4 percent last year from 7.7 percent the previous year.
The spending reflects China’s growing power and desire to assert itself in the region and globally. However, Beijing says the bigger budgets are only aimed at modernizing and improving conditions for the 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest standing military.
“China has a tougher road to travel than other large nations in terms of national defense modernization. We can only rely on ourselves for research and development of most of our military technology,” legislative spokeswoman Fu Ying said.
“Meanwhile, we need to ceaselessly improve conditions for our soldiers,” Fu said.
Fu told a news conference that China’s military posture remains strictly defensive and that it has never used “gunboats” to advance its trade interests.
Despite such assurances, neighboring countries have increased their own military spending in part to counter China’s rise.
In the past several years, Chinese and Japanese ships have frequently confronted each other near a set of contested East China Sea islands. China and India also have a disputed border high in the Himalayas.
China also has disputes with several neighbors over territory in the South China Sea, where U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said last week that Beijing is expanding outposts as part of an “aggressive” effort to assert sovereignty.
Japan increased its defense budget by 2.8 percent this year to a record $42 billion, the third consecutive year of increases following 11 years of declines prior to hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s rise to power in 2012. Planes and naval vessels to counter China’s growing capabilities top the Japanese military’s shopping list.
Even more dramatically, India, the world’s biggest arms importer in recent years, increased its spending this year by 11 percent to $40 billion, with big increases for its navy and air force. New Delhi has expressed concern not only about the disputed land border, but also about the Chinese navy’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean.
China’s official military spending is still less than a third of the U.S. defense budget, a proposed $534 billion this year along with $51 billion for the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But it comes against a background of anticipated flat or falling American spending on its armed forces in coming years.
The Pentagon and global arms bodies estimate China’s actual military spending may be anywhere from 40 to 50 percent more because the official budget doesn’t include the costs of high-tech weapons imports, research and development, and other key programs.
Neighboring countries have come to expect Chinese defense increases, said Alexander Neill, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“There’s the expectation that it’s not likely to plateau in the next few years, but will generally sit around that level commensurate with the PLA’s reform and modernization goals,” Neill said.
China’s low inflation could make this year’s increase close to or bigger in real terms than rises in recent years, when rapid price increases eroded the military’s buying power.
The planned increase of about 10 percent — to be confirmed Thursday at the opening of the National People’s Congress’s annual session — is in line with the overall increase in government spending planned for 2015, NPC spokeswoman Fu said.
Last year’s increase was 12.2 percent.
China’s neighbors may gain a degree of reassurance from the dip in the growth rate, said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at Shanghai’s University of Political Science and Law.
Growth of less than 10 percent would likely “be not enough” to meet the PLA’s modernization goals, Ni said.
China is seeking to improve conditions for the military amid rising labor costs and competition with the private sector for top graduates in science and technology.
The need for ever-more sophisticated weaponry is also increasing the costs, with the addition of an aircraft carrier combat wing, the roll-out of two prototype stealth fighters and cruise missiles that fly faster than the speed of sound.
The PLA’s traditional mandate had been to guard China’s borders and prepare for contingencies involving Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing has pledged to take control of, by force if necessary.
However, newer missions, including U.N. peacekeeping operations, are taking China’s military much further afield. China is also poised to pass an anti-terrorism law that could authorize the sending of military forces overseas to take part in anti-terror missions if granted permission by the host nation.
China’s forces, under the control of the Communist Party, are seen as being hampered by political interference, and top commanders have lately come under scrutiny as part of a nationwide crackdown on corruption.
Already, President Xi Jinping has overseen the arrests of two top generals, including the military’s retired No. 2 officer, Xu Caihou. This week, officials announced that 14 other top officers are under investigation or have been convicted of crimes such as selling ranks, embezzling funds or taking kickbacks on housing contracts.
While harming morale among some officers, the anti-graft drive could bring benefits to the military through a reduction of waste and losses from corruption, said Shanghai expert Ni.
“We don’t know the exact figures, but a great deal of money will be saved and spent wisely on the development of the military, which is of great significance,” Ni said.