Rising China may worry some people, but there is no need for panic. This article was published in Hindustan Times March 7, 2007
On Sunday, Beijing announced China’s military budget for the year: 350 billion yuan (approximately $ 45 billion), 17.8 per cent more than last year’s and the biggest increase in five years. Just a few days before, India announced that it would increase its defence spending by 7.8 per cent to Rs 96,000 crore (nearly $ 22 billion) in the coming fiscal. Where a surge of concern greeted the Chinese statement, there was not a ripple anywhere after the Indian declaration — except, not surprisingly, in Pakistan.
The Chinese figure was given as a one-line statement by Jiang Enzhu, a National People’s Congress spokesman. The Indian figure was detailed by Finance Minister P Chidambaram in the budget papers, breaking down the figure for the precise expenditure of the three services and the capital expenditure for acquisitions. Subsequent documents will add even more detail in the coming months.
The lack of comparable documentation for China has led to charges that the figures do not take into account spending on military R&D, arms imports, Chinese strategic forces, the People’s Armed Police militia and PLA reserves, as well as State subsidies to the Chinese military-industrial complex. The US Defence Intelligence Agency claimed that while the declared 2006 budget was $ 35 billion, the real defence spending could be $ 70 to $ 105 billion for the year.
We refuse to see this as a sinister effort by the Chinese to fudge the figures, but simply as an instance of their accounting practices that are Byzantine even in non-military areas. As for the military, after all India does not include the figures for defence civil estimates of Rs 16,695 crore (which includes defence pensions) in its military budget figure. Nor is it possible to quantify the military component of the Departments of Space and Atomic Energy figures. The expenditure on seven different paramilitary forces, too, do not show up on the defence ledger. After Richard Bitzinger considered that the listed size of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is 2.2 million, a planned expenditure of $ 45 billion should not be seen as extraordinary, when India’s 1.1 million force takes up $ 22 billion.
The issue is not who hides what and why, but the larger issue of the military posture and planning of the PLA. Of the four modernisations that Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping exhorted the Chinese to undertake in the late 1970s, ‘national defence’ was the fourth and last — after agriculture, industry, and science and technology. Since 1997, the Chinese defence spending has seen double digit increases of around 13.7 per cent adjusted for inflation.
Modernisation has meant drastically reducing the size of the PLA, getting it to shed its vast business empire of factories, hotels and real estate holdings, as well as enhancing its military capacity through better training, equipment and doctrines. Since the self-stated Chinese goal is modernisation, the expenditure figures should not surprise us. Speaking of the meagre Indian Budget increase, Jasjit Singh, a leading Indian defence analyst has stated that “a minimum 15 per cent hike” would have been in order to meet the ends of the armed forces. The figures simply inform us of Beijing’s steadfastness in pursuing its goals, rather than point to some sinister plan for world domination.
In its 2006 report, ‘Military Power of the People’s Republic of China’, the US conceded that in the near term, Chinese military modernisation efforts were focused on “Taiwan Straits contingencies, including the possibility of US intervention [against China]”. Certainly, if you plan to militarily check a rebellious province and in the process confront the world’s sole superpower, the military expenditures do not appear unreasonable. India has expended a great deal of blood and treasure to bring its rebellious J&K province to heel. But all it has had to confront has been Pakistan. Taiwan’s history, its current politics and military capabilities present a much more complex challenge to Beijing.
And the real worry for China is the possibility of US intervention. Given that the sheer preponderance of US military strength, a military budget that is about ten times that proposed by China, the very idea of planning for a possible conflict with the US is daunting. But it is not courage or political will that the Chinese lack, but military hardware. In their limited way, they are trying to make up for it in somewhat difficult circumstances of an embargo on hi-tech military systems from the EU, Israel and the US.
But the Chinese have had some luck. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave them the opportunity to obtain a variety of Russian military equipment — Sukhoi fighters, Sovremennyy destroyers, Kilo-class submarines, S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, Yakhont anti-ship missiles. These are not particularly threatening. India has imported, and imports, similar, and in cases, more sophisticated systems from Russia.
But the key difference lies not in the near term, but in longer term Chinese efforts in defence R&D and industry. Where India dithered, they went and hired large teams of scientists and engineers who have given a much needed fillip to their defence R&D and industry, which was till then based on reverse-engineering systems the Soviets had supplied till the early 1960s.
While India’s puny R&D efforts reflect their small budgets and shoddy political and scientific management, the Chinese have systematically used every import to add muscle to their R&D infrastructure. This is not something new. India and China got the MiG-21 together from the USSR in the early 1960s. India, unlike China, even received a licence to manufacture the aircraft, but never managed to go beyond that phase. The Chinese reverse-engineered the aircraft, sold it to Third World clients and built up a vigorous aerospace industry that has fielded the country’s first indigenous fourth-generation fighter, the J-10.
The US perspective on China’s modernisation is shaped not just by its commitments to Taiwan, but also by its self-view as a superpower and its natural desire to remain so. This was summed up in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review that noted that “China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional US military advantages”.
An Indian perspective must be much narrower. Does the Chinese military modernisation offer any special threat to India? The answer is no. We face no credible trans-Himalayan threat. From the naval point of view, things are actually lopsided in India’s favour. Eighty per cent of China’s oil is carried on ships that must pass by the Konkan coast, go around Sri Lanka and between the Andaman & Nicobar Islands to the Malacca Straits. The implications of this are obvious.
India’s inability to get its defence R&D off the ground and to mesh its civil and military industries for national defence needs is a major long-term infirmity. In the short run, New Delhi is able to make up for its poor R&D performance by being able to access Russian, European, Israeli and now US technologies. But this is at the cost of developing indigenous capabilities and reflects a level of geopolitical weakness. In contrast, China’s steadily growing prowess in these areas provides it with the potential of emerging as a superpower in its own right, sooner rather than later.