It is that time of the year. China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) spokesman Li Zhaoxing declared on March 04 that China’s defense budget for 2012 increased by 11.2% over the previous year and stood at approximately $ 106 billion. This was great relief for some of China’s hardliners who feared the international and regional developments in the past year may persuade the leadership to take a low profile on defence and make a moderate single digit increase.
As is the routine, western experts have come out with several explanations for the budget increase, but they are almost unanimous that the real budget would be anything in the range $ 160 billion or higher. The hidden portion of the budget is used for high technology defence research and development, development and maintenance of strategic forces known as Second Artillery, and major acquisitions. For the first time spokesman Li attempted some transparency saying most of budget would be spent on regular personnel expenditure, research and development, procurement, repair, transport and storage of all weapons and equipment including new types of weapons.
Addressing the 5th session (annual) of the 11th NPC in Beijing’s great Hall of the people on March 05, Premier Wen Jiabao gave a number of reasons for the increase in the defense budget. The following are of interest:
(a) A strong national defense and powerful armed forces provide a firm guarantee for safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.
(b) enhances the capability of the armed forces to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, especially to win local wars under information-age conditions.
(c) innovations in defense related science and technology and in weapons and equipment development.
(d) modernize the armed police (People’s Armed Police – PAP)
(e) combating terrorism, maintaining stability, handling emergencies and relieving deserters.
(f) managing military and defense industries.
Premier Wen was abundantly clear that China’s defense budget annual increase is not going to peter out anytime soon. Military development and economic development will remain interdependent, and one will climb on the shoulders of the other for reaching ever more excellence. As the second largest economic power in the world in gross terms, in China’s view it has not yet reached the desirable military power. In comparative terms, China is at the stage that NATO was in the 1980s. This gap has to be covered expeditiously and that effort is very visible.
It is evident that China is leap-fogging in another trajectory to close the military modernization gap with the west, at least primarily in its immediate region, the Asia Pacific Region (APR). Faced with the superior capability of the US and its so-called ‘pivot’ in the region declared by President Barack Obama, Beijing’s priority for its over arching domination of its near sea-board has become more imperative. The emphasis, therefore, is on area denial for the US and information age warfare.
What are the priorities of the Chinese leadership? First is the relevance of the Chinese communist party. They honestly believe that if the party collapse China will disintegrate. The PLA is the guarantor of the party’s security, and this is the first responsibility of the PLA. On the other hand, the PLA is subservient to the party. The party commands the PLA. The importance of the PLA stems from here.
Apart from the security of the party, China is acutely sensitive about its territorial integrity which Beijing considers at its “core interest”. These are Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous region.
Taiwan is considered China renegade province, and the only one not integrated with the mainland. On the other hand, the US considers Taiwan as the unsinkable aircraft carrier in the region and is the main protector of Taipei. Since the KMT returned to power in Taiwan, however, relations across the Taiwan strait have improved significantly. The pro-Independence Democratic People’s Party (DPP) have lost two successive elections. The KMT led by President Ma Ying-Jeou have maintained a middle ground of states quo, while expanding trade and other relations. This does not mean, however, that the KMT has relaxed in any way defense preparedness in the interest of economic exchanges with mainland China.
The US keeps Taiwan armed with just enough military assistance to maintain a semblance balance of power against China. Taiwan faces around 1,300 medium range M-9 missiles deployed against it, and the growing Chinese naval power which can blockade Taiwan in case of a crisis and prevent US intervention.
China retains military option to get Taiwan integrated, but would prefer peaceful means. USA’s Taiwan Relation Act (TRA), 1978, though deliberately ambiguous to an extent, makes it incumbent on the Pesident to take note of and decide on military assistance to Taiwan if it is attacked. This is the reason why China is on a fast track to develop what is known as “area denial” or “access denial” armament like the DF-21D nuclear capable as well as conventional warhead ballistic missile, known as ‘aircraft carrier killer’ missile.
Having said that, a Chinese military adventure against Taiwan even armed with area-denial armament would require very deep consideration among China’s top leadership. There is a section in China which feels if Taiwan is allowed function independently for a long time, its de facto independence may become de jure.
At the same time, the PLA just cannot wade into Taiwan. Such an action would draw in not only the US and the regional countries, but the whole world. It would be an unmitigated disaster leading to chain effects, and China can do more harm to itself than benefitting by it.
But the manner of China’s military development planning does not inspire confidence in a stable and peaceful reconciliation of the Taiwan issue, though it must be admitted that jingoistic rhetorics on Taiwan have greatly reduced in recent years.
Tibet and Xinjiang are the other two territorial integrity issues, but unlike Taiwan both these regions are within China’s administrative control and recognized by the global community as China’s sovereign territories. Neither the Dalai Lama nor the Tibetans are demanding independence. They are asking for reasonable autonomy which is even less than the Chinese constitution allows. The Muslims of Xinjiang have a similar case but have been pushed by the central government policies on the one hand, and the indoctrination of Islamic radicals in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to seek independence.
Whatever may be the case anti-China sentiments have sharply increased in both Tibet and Xinjiang from 2008. The remonstrations in Tibet are peaceful, but have extended to self- sacrifice to emphasise a cause. In Xinjiang it has been more violent.
The point at issue is that the PLA’s role in quelling these sentiments in Tibet and Xinjiang is rapidly growing. The PLA may not be involved directly all the time with its soldiers, but its role and capacity has been increased tremendously with paramilitary agencies at its command. The People’s Armed Police (PAP) and newly raised internal security entities are now under the PLA. The budget for this internal security forces was raised to $ 111 billion for 2012 from $ 95 billion 2011. This is bigger than the declared budget of the PLA in both these years.
It appears, the PLA is taking an over arching role. The problem here is that both Tibet and Xinjiang are bordering regions, and can lead to other complication with neighbours. India will have to be alert, if harsh crackdowns on the Tibetans in Tibet lead to an exodus to India. The more the Chinese authorities strike hard on the Tibetans, the worse the situation will be. The Tibetans appear to have come to the last resort they would rather sacrifice their own lives than live as dead men under China’s command. This is a highly disturbing development for the region.
Of more immediate attention is China’s assertive position in its eastern sea board, especially the sea of Japan and the South China Sea. China’s position and even actions on the ground with “military flag showing in these two areas are not overnight developments”. Plotted on a graph, China decibels have been increasing in consonance with the growth of its military power, specifically from 2003-2004. The year 2011 was a particularly belligerent year. There were some signs of control, but confrontation with Japan on the Senkaku and other islands in the Sea of Japan and with the Philippines and Vietnam in South China have been consistent, periodically rising in crescendo and with small physical skirmishes.
China’s politico-military assertiveness in the region poses a serious challenge to the other countries. A dormant and stable region has become excited, with both Japan and Australia declaring a guard against China defense policies. It is also partly responsible for the US reinvigorate its strategic position in the region which it could not neglect. It may also be noted that Washington has taken a new initiative with North Korea – 240 million tons of food for Pyongyang to stop its missile test and nuclear programme. Beijing has noted the development. How Pyongyang behaves henceforth will depend upon Beijing’s influence with North Korea.
In brief, Beijing’s actions in the region has created an unwritten alliance to stand up with US backing. To note, most of the belligerent positions have come from the PLA which has been trying to drive some of China’s foreign and strategic policies.
From Premier Wen’s speech and a review Chinese actions and writings, it is evident that China’s power projection across the Indian ocean is also inevitable. One reason is to secure its energy and raw material supplies from the Gulf and Africa. The other is to position itself as Asia’s leader – an enduring foreign policy programme. One can understand China’s dire need for energy supplies and no country in Asia including India will be a hindrance. But the second aspiration spells instability and potential confrontation.
Much will depend upon how strongly the Party is able to control the PLA’s ambitions. The repeated emphasis by the Party leaders that the Party commands the gun, promotes discomfort for China’s neighbours. Reemphasis of this position at every opportunity and several times during the NPC session only proves there is a serious issue between the party and the army on certain policies. The party is still pre-eminent but is it losing ground? If so, the challenge to China’s internal stability and its neighbours with which it has territorial/boundary issues can be disturbing.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email: email@example.com)