As tensions mount between the two countries, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, described China this week as the “biggest challenge” of the century. Xi Jinping’s regime announced on Friday a military budget slightly up 6.8% for 2021. This growth rate, higher than in 2020 (+ 6.6%), was announced in a report from the Ministry of Finances published on the sidelines of the annual session of Parliament.
Beijing plans to spend 1,355.34 billion yuan (209 billion dollars, 175 billion euros) on its defense, which remains three to four times lower than the expenditure of Washington. “This is an official figure that probably does not take into account all defense-related spending,” said Adam Ni, director of the China Policy Center (Australia). “The same problem exists with other countries, including the United States. ”
China justifies these increases for several reasons: to catch up with the West, to improve the payment of the military, in particular to attract new talents within the army, but above all to better defend its borders with more expensive armaments. It intends to assert its claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea (vis-à-vis Vietnam and the Philippines in particular), in the East China Sea (on the Senkaku Islands controlled by Japan), as well as in the Himalayas against India. The preparation for a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan, an island of 23 million inhabitants considered by Beijing to be Chinese, is also weighing heavily on the finances of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Because if the option of an attack on island territory should only be activated in the event of a formal declaration of independence in Taipei, preparing for it remains extremely costly (ships, missiles, planes, exercises). Hostile to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party is traditionally independent, the Chinese army now sends planes almost daily to the air defense identification zone (Adiz) of Taiwan. “Taiwan’s independence will be synonymous with war,” the Chinese Defense Ministry warned in January.
Other fronts: Sino-American and Sino-Indian relations, particularly strained during the past year. The United States sent warships to the South China Sea to thwart Beijing’s territorial ambitions there, but also close to Taiwan to support the Taiwanese leadership there. A clash between China and India on their mountainous border also resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese servicemen last June.
“The external threats facing China are forcing it to strengthen its defense capabilities”, especially in the face of “American interference on the Taiwan question”, explains Song Zhongping, Chinese expert on the PLA.
Destroyers and helicopter carriers
Taiwan and the South China Sea being China’s priorities, the navy receives a large portion of the military budget. It has been reinforced over the past 12 months with planes, destroyers and the launch of two new amphibious assault helicopter carriers. China, which already has two aircraft carriers (the Liaoning and the Shandong), is currently building a third. The strengthening of the Chinese army, which claims to have a “defensive” policy and “not to seek hegemony or expansionism”, however arouses recurring mistrust of neighboring nations.
“China’s growing military might, no doubt, looks threatening to other Asian countries […] and the United States, ”said James Char, a Chinese military expert at Nanyang University of Technology in Singapore. “But the PLA will still need several years or decades before it really gets to the point. So she should probably exercise caution before embarking on actual fights. ”
Beijing argues that its military spending only follows its economic growth and that it remains moderate as a percentage of GDP (around 2%), where Washington and Moscow exceed 3%. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), the United States was far ahead ($ 732 billion) in military spending in 2019, ahead of China (261), India (71) , Russia (65), Saudi Arabia (62) and France (50).