China's defense budget is once again thrust into the spotlight as delegates to its largely rubber-stamp parliament gather for their annual meeting. There are signs that Beijing’s military spending will continue to rise.
Fu Ying is an experienced diplomat. She was China's ambassador to the Philippines, Australia and the UK, and later vice foreign minister. Currently serving as chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's legislature, she has brought her diplomatic experience to bear over the past five years, particularly on the day before the opening of the body's annual session.
Appearing before the press, she has an uncanny knack of deflecting the attention from critical issues and strenuously defending the Communist Party's positions. This is particularly evident when it comes to the issue of China's defense spending, which is always presented at the NPC pre-opening press conference.
Fu's standard answer at these press conferences has always been: "I cannot say much about it." In 2015, Fu said she could give only "a rough estimate," noting that the draft budget "proposes an increase of about 10 percent" in defense expenditure.
In 2016, she said, "The foreign press always wants to have numbers as soon as possible. But if I reveal the numbers prematurely, it would be like a false start to the sprint. If I did not say anything about it, however, you would blame me and hold it against me. So an approximate figure from me: between seven and eight percent."
For the first time in history, China spent more than a trillion yuan (about €150 billion, $184.6 billion) on defense in 2017. That's still only about a quarter of what the US spends on its military. However, China's defense spending now has seen a hundredfold increase compared to its expenditure in 1978. Just for comparison, Beijing's current military spending is equivalent to about 45 percent of Germany's entire federal budget in 2017.
Yet, due to its fast-growing economy, spending on defense accounts for just 1.3 percent of Chinese GDP. (See infographic)
"The 1.3-percent level has remained stable for years," Fu said at last year's press conference. She also referred to NATO's defense spending target of two percent of GDP.
"I just came back from the Munich Security Conference, where NATO asked its members to spend two percent of their GDP on military. Were you unsettled by this call? Would you not ask NATO what the purpose of this spending is?" she questioned.
There are signs that China's military spending will continue to rise. The China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) even said in a statement on Tuesday, February 27, that it plans to speed up the process of making technological breakthroughs in nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, new-type nuclear submarines, quiet submarines and naval warfare comprehensive electronic information systems. CSIC's plan aims to put China's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier into service by 2025, which would mean the construction would have to start now.
China had already managed to refurbish a former Soviet aircraft carrier and has been operating it since 2012, while another conventional carrier was launched in 2017.
At present, only the US (10) and France (one) are operating nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. And China's ascension into this elite club would raise its national prestige and the stature of the Communist Party. President Xi Jinping has also elevated "resurgence of the Chinese nation" into a constitutional goal, which provides a topic of discussion for the delegates attending the NPC.
Furthermore, China is making strides when it comes to the development of other costly weapons systems and could soon even gain a strategic advantage over the West.
Referring to the recent issue of The Military Balance, an annual assessment of global military capabilities published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Economist magazine said China could break the American monopoly on stealth aircraft technology within two years.
The Chinese Chengdu J-20 aircraft is even said to have a wider range than its American equivalent, the F-35, potentially posing a serious threat to the US Navy in the Pacific.