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China’s Military Budget: Should We Be Concerned?

By Morgan Deane:

In some circles, dismissing Chinese threats is popular. These circles typically comprise the virulent antiwar and anti-military crowd who argue that China is merely the victim of aggressive American behavior. They point to events like America’s involvement in Korea and cite America’s high military spending and free navigation patrols in the South China Sea as evidence. According to infographics, one popular argument shows how American military spending is greater than that of the next seven countries with the most active military spending combined. America does spend a great deal of money, but this does not mean that the threats are any less real—or that America is causing them. In fact, because China deliberately manipulates reported spending numbers and continues its aggression in the South China Sea, the infographic actually distorts the true nature of the threats America faces.

China’s military budget has increased by double digit percentages every year since 1997. This growth in military spending has been larger than the country’s economic growth, and it focuses on newer and more advanced technologies like anti-ship cruise missiles, advanced frigates, and home-built aircraft carriers. However, this is only the announced growth. The Rand Corporation suggests that China’s numbers are typically much higher than they report; similarly, sinologist June Teufel Dryer estimates that Chinese spending is much higher based on several factors. She points to complaints of province leaders feeding and housing soldiers to argue that the Chinese don’t report many of their personnel costs, such as housing and food. She argues that the cost of their nuclear weapons program, which is rather large, and the cost of their weapons acquisition programs are not included either. Finally, she points out that the cost of living and wages in China are so much lower; therefore, their relatively low expenditures are not representative of the large number of soldiers they have. The low range of the reconfigured Chinese budget is 30-40% higher than what has been reported. The high range would place their budget as much as ten times higher on the upper range of estimates. The median derived by most analysts suggests a military budget three to four times their disclosed amount.

Critics of American military involvement point to pictures like the one below to claim that the American military industrial complex and massive outspending of opponents makes it very hard to justify reversing sequestration—or even the need for a military that strong. But even using the amount China admits to (144 billion in military spending in 2015) and then multiplying by 4 (the amount that most analysts suggest) would place China roughly equal with the US in spending. And considering the low cost of living, that money can sustain a much larger military than it can in the United States.

When using only military spending as a measuring tool, Chinese spending is not as innocent as many suggest. But aggression isn’t simply a math problem. How that military is used matters just as much as the money spent on it. The Chinese have illegally built up islands, installing advanced radar systems, anti-air batteries, shipping docks that can handle blue water ships, submarine bases, and large runways that can support advanced fighters (which are being built using stolen technology from the F 22 and F 35). These activities suggest that China is being rather aggressive, despite their apparently small budget.

Additionally,, the Chinese have fought preemptive offensive wars with every one of their neighbors in the last 60 years. In 1950, they invaded Korea and fought American soldiers. They seized islands from Taiwan during the Taiwan Strait Crisis and would have seized Formosa had the US failed to intervene. They fought India over disputed territory in 1962 and seized islands on the border with Russia in 1969, leading to a prolonged Cold War between the two Communist powers throughout the ‘70s. Finally, China attacked Vietnam in 1979 over disputed territory. In addition, they currently sponsor aggressive actions in the South and East China Seas against their neighbors. They claim to be on the defensive against rapacious Westerners but have proven to be rather aggressive; their preemptive tendencies suggest they are at least as much of a threat as antiwar and anti-military advocates believe the US to be.

In contrast, some American behaviors defined as warlike are vital peace-building functions. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the disputed territories is an important function of international law allowing ships to travel without interference from other powers. Since China claims many of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, America’s continued use of these operations shows the Chinese that America does not recognize their claims. That sounds aggressive, and it does come with a risk of a confrontation, but it shows the other powers in the region that international law and freedom of the seas matter. If international law is disregarded, it will be a free-for-all in this region where disputes are settled by force. This would naturally encourage more assertive action by China, the biggest military power in the region. If China aggressively controls this territory, they could easily cut off shipping in the region—a crucial area through which almost half of the world’s merchant fleet passes. If military funding is cut because spending money on a large force or sending them on Freedom of Navigation patrols appears too “warlike,” then these vital operations are less likely to occur or will be done with a less capable military. Both consequences will lead to an increase in tension in the region and put lives in danger.

In short, in both military spending and behavior, the Chinese are rather aggressive. They deliberately manipulate the perception of their military spending in order to appear more peaceful than they are, undermining an accurate assessment of their aggression. The United States does appear to spend a significant amount on the military, but this may be partially due to the Chinese manipulation of their records. Regardless of the perception, America needs a strong military with adequate funding to properly prevent aggression and help promote peace. Assessing and responding to threats is far more than complaining about spending.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.