China’s state media downplayed a $175 billion increase in defense spending proposed for 2018 on Tuesday, claiming the spending spike is “not much” and not intended to launch an “arms race” with the United States.
China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, passed the new military budget this week during its opening session.
The Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper, published an article Monday downplaying the increase in funding. The piece did not repeat the full budget set aside for the military—$175 billion—instead repeatedly referring to an allegedly modest 8.1 percent increase in funding.
“The increase in China’s defense budget is higher than the 7 percent of 2017, but is much lower than double-digit increases that lasted for many years before 2016,” the article claims. “Taking into account U.S. military expenditure that received a boost of over 10 percent in the fiscal year 2018, and the fact that annual U.S. military spending is four times that of China’s, the 8.1 percent rise is indeed not much.”
It goes on to argue that, “obviously,” China is not “engaging in an arms race with the U.S.”
If China were to enter an arms race, the Global Times hypothesizes that it “could totally realize double-digit increases in its defense expenditure. After all, the country’s military spending accounts for less than 1.5 percent of GDP while NATO members spend at least 2 percent of their GDP and the U.S. is spending 4 percent.”
Another Chinese government outlet, China Daily, made the case that the spending was “not out of the ordinary.”
“China’s defense budget has become a lightning rod for those keen to claim there is a threat from China, for whatever reason,” the newspaper noted. It appeared to cite international legal tribunals condemning its colonization of international waters in the South China Sea as a need for this spending boost.
“The country has seen its maritime interests being increasingly infringed upon in recent years, and thus seeking a stronger military is natural for it to safeguard its interests and counter any threat that may materialize from the aggressive posturing of others upset by its rise,” China Daily claimed.
China Military Online also defended the spending increase in an article republished by the Chinese Defense Ministry, citing a professor who called the increase “reasonable, legal, appropriate, and sustainable.”
In separate remarks, National People’s Congress spokesman Zhang Yesui added to the vocal protests of alleged concern with the spending boost. “With a defense policy that is defensive in nature, the development of China will pose no threat to any other country,” Zhang said.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang similarly boasted that China had cut its number of troops by 300,000. Li explained this week that much of the money is meant to “advance all aspects of military training and war preparedness, and firmly and resolvedly safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests.”
The new budget proposes replacing much of China’s manpower with new technology; the nation’s military is reportedly working on expanding investment in robotics and artificial intelligence, among other technologies, to outpace America’s military.
Beijing is clearly preoccupied with defending its announcement of a significant military boost as the number of neighboring countries it has tensions with grows. The change in tone is significant from two weeks ago, when a former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) official told the state-run People’s Daily, “There is no need to hide the ambition of the PLA Navy: to gain an ability like the U.S. Navy so that it can conduct different operations globally.” A different official insisted, “It is reasonable and necessary for China to strengthen its maritime power as it is becoming stronger.”
In print, the People’s Daily published a two-page spread titled “Time Is Ripe for a Maritime Great Power,” not shying away from Beijing’s hegemonic goals.