Economist – China is rapidly modernising its armed forces is not in doubt, though there is disagreement about what the true spending figure is. China’s defence budget has almost certainly experienced double digit growth for two decades. According to SIPRI, a research institute, annual defence spending rose from over $30 billion in 2000 to almost $120 billion in 2010. SIPRI usually adds about 50% to the official figure that China gives for its defence spending, because even basic military items such as research and development are kept off budget. Including those items would imply total military spending in 2012, based on the latest announcement from Beijing, will be around $160 billion. America still spends four-and-a-half times as much on defence, but on present trends China’s defence spending could overtake America’s after 2035.
Estimate of Defense Budgets for China and the USA in Billions
History of Buildup
The second phase of modernisation began in the 1980s, under Deng Xiaoping. Deng was seeking to reform the whole country and the army was no exception. But he told the PLA that his priority was the economy; the generals must be patient and live within a budget of less than 1.5% of GDP.
A third phase began in the early 1990s. Shaken by the destructive impact of the West’s high-tech weaponry on the Iraqi army, the PLA realised that its huge ground forces were militarily obsolete. PLA scholars at the Academy of Military Science in Beijing began learning all they could from American think-tanks about the so-called “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), a change in strategy and weaponry made possible by exponentially greater computer-processing power. In a meeting with The Economist at the Academy, General Chen Zhou, the main author of the four most recent defence white papers, said: “We studied RMA exhaustively. Our great hero was Andy Marshall in the Pentagon [the powerful head of the Office of Net Assessment who was known as the Pentagon’s futurist-in-chief]. We translated every word he wrote.”
Still Mechanizing and developing unified C4ISR
Unified C4ISR is command, control, communications, and computers; ISR stands for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. China calls this informatisation.
General Chen describes the period up to 2010 as “laying the foundations of modernised forces”. The next decade should see the roll-out of what is called mechanisation (the deployment of advanced military platforms) and informatisation (bringing them together as a network). The two processes should be completed in terms of equipment, integration and training by 2020. But General Chen reckons China will not achieve full informatisation until well after that. “A major difficulty”, he says, “is that we are still only partially mechanised. We do not always know how to make our investments when technology is both overlapping and leapfrogging.”
China’s other priorities
The threat from China should not be exaggerated. There are three limiting factors. First, unlike the former Soviet Union, China has a vital national interest in the stability of the global economic system. Its military leaders constantly stress that the development of what is still only a middle-income country with a lot of very poor people takes precedence over military ambition. The increase in military spending reflects the growth of the economy, rather than an expanding share of national income. For many years China has spent the same proportion of GDP on defence (a bit over 2%, whereas America spends about 4.7%). The real test of China’s willingness to keep military spending constant will come when China’s headlong economic growth starts to slow further. But on past form, China’s leaders will continue to worry more about internal threats to their control than external ones. Last year spending on internal security outstripped military spending for the first time. With a rapidly ageing population, it is also a good bet that meeting the demand for better health care will become a higher priority than maintaining military spending. Like all the other great powers, China faces a choice of guns or walking sticks.
China’s Military will be a Paper Dragon for 30 or more years
China’s defence industry may be improving but it remains scattered, inefficient and over-dependent on high-tech imports from Russia, which is happy to sell the same stuff to China’s local rivals, India and Vietnam. The PLA also has little recent combat experience. The last time it fought a real enemy was in the war against Vietnam in 1979, when it got a bloody nose. In contrast, a decade of conflict has honed American forces to a new pitch of professionalism. There must be some doubt that the PLA could put into practice the complex joint operations it is being increasingly called upon to perform.
General Yao says the gap between American and Chinese forces is “at least 30, maybe 50, years”. “China”, she says, “has no need to be a military peer of the US. But perhaps by the time we do become a peer competitor the leadership of both countries will have the wisdom to deal with the problem.” The global security of the next few decades will depend on her hope being realised.
This is only relative to the USA. China is and will be more than a match for any other regional power.