China, with the world’s largest military in terms of personnel, is busy adding a slew of new hardware, including aircraft carriers and stealth fighters.
Announcing the increase in the world’s second-largest defence budget, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang highlighted escalating “external attempts to suppress and contain China”. “The armed forces should intensify military training and preparedness across the board … devote greater energy to training under combat conditions,” said Li as he presented the government’s annual work report to thousands of delegates in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
It is widely understood that Beijing spends much more money on its military than the official figures. However, China’s defence spending pales in comparison with the United States, which has allotted over $800 billion for its military this year.
Beijing and Washington have butted heads in recent years over trade, human rights and other issues, but relations soured even further last month when the US shot down a Chinese balloon it said was being used for surveillance — a claim strenuously denied by Beijing.
Relations had suffered a severe blow in August last year, when Nancy Pelosi became the first sitting House speaker in 25 years to visit Taipei.
The PLA responded to Pelosi’s visit with unprecedented military drills that appeared to practice a blockade of Taiwan, with exercises occurring off major cities and on the east and west sides of the island that China has pledged to one day bring under its control. China also launched missiles directly over Taiwan.
Reference to India
Li also spoke highly of the armed forces’ achievements at the borders. “They carried out operations in a firm and flexible way, and they effectively conducted major missions relating to border defence, maritime rights protection, counterterrorism and stability maintenance, disaster rescue and relief, Covid-19 response, peacekeeping, and merchant ship escorting.”
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The reference to “major missions relating to border defence” was regarded as significant in the context of offensive actions by the PLA in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020 along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, triggering a prolonged standoff virtually freezing the relations between the two countries.
Both sides held 17 rounds of high-level military talks to resolve the standoff and the 18th round was expected to take place soon.
From India’s point of view, China’s defence budget continued to be over three times higher. India’s defence budget for 2023-24 is about $72.6 billion.
‘World-class force by 2027’
Spending on the People’s Liberation Army has increased by at least 6.6% each year for the past three decades, keeping pace or often exceeding economic growth.
The increasing military budgets are also in line with President Xi Jinping‘s promise to build a “world-class force” by 2027, a deadline that coincides with the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army.
Meanwhile, top American officials have repeatedly warned that China may invade the self-ruled island in the coming years, pointing to Beijing’s increasingly assertive military moves around the Taiwan Strait, which it sees as its own territory and has vowed to bring under its control.
However, Li struck a moderate tone on Taiwan saying China should promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and advance the process of China’s “peaceful reunification”, but also take resolute steps to oppose Taiwan independence.
Beijing has said its military spending is for defensive purposes only and is a comparatively low percentage of its GDP and that critics want to demonise it as a threat to world peace.
China also plans to increase its public security budget by 6.4% — the fastest pace in five years. That rise comes after the country experienced its most widespread protests in decades in November due to broad discontent over harsh Covid Zero rules.
(With inputs from agencies)