Chinese math: just what do those rising defense numbers mean?

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – China said Tuesday 5 March that it is increasing military spending by 10.7 percent in 2013, making defense a top priority as the National People’s Congress session opens under new leadership. The new was greeted outside China by a mix of concern and puzzlement, as analysts struggle to interpret how much of China’s real military spending this represents. There is also speculation that the new budget will allow Communist Party leader Xi Jinping to strengthen important ties with the military. He is widely expected to be named premier before the Congress ends 17 March.

The Washington Post noted Tuesday that Chinese military officials downplay the increase, while its neighbours are worried that it signals greater aggressiveness, and US military officials believe the figures are under-reported. “The military increase continues two decades of double-digit growth. But China’s projected military budget at $115.7 billion still pales in comparison to the US military’s $656.2 billion budget in 2012, a point made by several Chinese military officials and experts in interviews on Tuesday.”

The Financial Times in the UK points to military issues with neighbours Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, but says that “the latest rise underscores a trend of slower growth in Chinese defence spending, in line with a slower rate of economic growth. Wen Jiabao, the outgoing premier, said China would aim for 7.5 per cent economic growth this year – unchanged from 2012 but lower than previous targets … despite the increasingly tense regional climate, experts agree that the days of the sharpest rises in defence spending are over.”

The South China Post undertakes a lengthy analysis of the numbers, noting in the end: “Factor in Beijing’s hidden expenditure, and the real value of China’s defence budget climbs to double the headline figure announced yesterday. Even then, however, it still amounts to less than 40 per cent of the US military’s budget for this year.”