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U.S. Asia Strategy Not Driving PRC’s Big Military Spending Increases

Posted by Dean Cheng on

The Chinese National People’s Congress has announced its new defense budget, offering the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) yet another double-digit increase, with funding up 11.2 percent this time. Officially, this amounts to a $106 billion defense budget, although most observers believe that China’s real defense budget is probably twice that much, if not more.

In some quarters, the latest boost in Beijing’s defense spending is already being blamed on the United States. The U.S. announced a “pivot to Asia” in January, so China promptly increased its defense budget. This line of thinking underscores the truth in the old adage that, for every problem, there is a solution that is neat, plausible – and wrong.

Is it really reasonable to think that China’s bureaucracy could incorporate the so-called pivot, which still lacks details on just what new resources will be committed to Asia, or what missions and tasks will be abandoned, and adjust its defense spending plans in six weeks?

Moreover, the Obama administration, as well as Congress, has made clear it will be cutting the U.S. defense budget. Is it really reasonable to think that the Chinese are so terrified of the word “pivot” that they would automatically increase their defense spending in response?

Finally, the reality is that China’s defense spending has been increasing by double digits for over two decades, in essence since the end of the Cold War. Is it really reasonable to think that this year’s increase in Chinese defense spending is purely or even primarily a response to American actions?

Realistically, China’s increase in defense spending reflects several trends that have little to do with the United States.

First, China’s changing strategic requirements. China’s economy, the second-largest in the world, is rooted in global trade. China imports enormous quantities of oil, coal, food, and various raw materials. It also continues to have territorial disputes with almost every one of its neighbors, some of whom abut China’s trade routes. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Chinese would improve their military to safeguard these interests.

Second, the evolving nature of warfare. As Chinese military writers repeatedly observe, modern warfare is no longer a matter of individual weapons, but a contest between rival systems-of-systems. Consequently, the days of a PLA focused primarily on large numbers of forces, often primitively equipped, are long gone. Instead, today’s PLA is equipping itself with modern weapons. More important, the PLA pays an enormous amount of attention on improving its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, the systems that allow modern weapons to be employed to best effect. Such essential systems are increasingly costly, affecting defense budgets around the world, including not only China’s but America’s as well.

Third, reform of the PLA itself. To accommodate the global transformation in warfare, the Chinese have been striving to shift their military from one focused on quantity to one that emphasizes quality. This requires, first and foremost, long-serving troops, especially non-commissioned officers (NCOs). For the past two decades, the Chinese have been trying to create a more professional NCO corps-a task which requires higher salaries and better living conditions, to retain people as a career. A significant portion of PLA defense spending increases have been aimed at quality-of-life matters.

Fourth, more complex weapons are more expensive. A speech by Hu Jintao in December 2011 suggests that the ongoing five-year plan may see a shift in PLA resource allocation toward weapons acquisition. Hu indicated that military achievements in the last five-year plan, which included testing an anti-satellite weapon, fielding an array of new observation satellites, and unveiling of new combat aircraft such as the J-20, should serve as a foundation for further PLA equipment advances in the current five-year plan. Such increasingly sophisticated weapons, however, will be more expensive both to acquire and to maintain. Unsurprisingly, China is not replacing its old combat aircraft or naval combatants on a one-for-one basis. Nonetheless, China is still fielding one of the largest air forces and submarine fleets in the world. All of this will require substantial financial and human resources.

What should be of concern to the United States is not that China’s defense spending is increasing, per se, but that China is choosing to use those additional resources to acquire systems that seem to be specifically targeted at American capabilities. China’s burgeoning anti-access/area denial capabilities, including anti-ship ballistic missiles, long-range cruise missiles, and attendant C4ISR capabilities, are far more optimized at keeping the United States out of the western Pacific than in preserving the sea lanes that supply the Chinese economy.

Dean Cheng, with the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, is one of America’s most respected analysts of the Chinese military.

What do you think?