Why the Hike in China’s Defence Budget Calls for Introspection
While China continues to focus on defence preparedness, India is yet to make up its mind on hiking defence budget.
The National People’s Congress (NPC) – China’s rubber-stamp Parliament – has hiked the defence budget for 2016-17 by 7.6 percent to $146 billion (Yuan 956.8 billion). After five consecutive double-digit hikes in the allotment for defence, the relatively modest hike this year is an acknowledgement of steadily declining growth rates.
Coming close on the heels of wide-ranging reforms in the organisational structure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the defence budget is a clear signal from the regime led by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang that China will continue its relentless march towards becoming the pre-eminent military power in Asia. It also signals an enduring commitment to the strategy of military assertiveness in dealing with territorial disputes.
China’s Emphasis On National Security
Two years ago, while presenting the budget, Premier Li Keqiang said the government would “strengthen research on national defence and the development of new and high-technology weapons and equipment”.
Echoing those sentiments, last year the Chinese Premier told Parliament, “Building a solid national defence and strong armed forces is fundamental to safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security, and developmental interests.” He said China will comprehensively strengthen modern logistics, enhance research and development of new, high-technology weapons and equipment, and develop defence-related science and technology industries.
The Central Military Commission’s marked emphasis on making China a maritime power has set alarm bells ringing in Asian capitals.
China is a major maritime country. We need to draw up and implement a strategic maritime plan, develop marine economy, protect the marine environment, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, properly handle maritime disputes, actively expand bilateral and multilateral maritime cooperation and move close to achieve the goal of building China into a maritime power.Li Keqiang, Chinese Premier
Steep Hike In Defence Expenditure
Chinese analysts justify the steep annual hikes in the defence outlay as having been “caused by the sharp increase in the wages, living expenses and pensions of 2.3 million PLA officers, civilian personnel, soldiers and army retirees.” While this is true to some extent, there is far more to the steep annual hikes in the defence expenditure than Chinese analysts are prepared to concede.
China’s neighbours and governments across the world remember the spectacular anti-satellite (ASAT) test successfully conducted by China in January 2007. They see pictures of the Liaoning aircraft carrier undergoing sea trials and are aware of plans to acquire more submarines.
The acquisition of SU-30 long-range fighter-bombers with air-to-air refuelling capability, the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles and a growing footprint in the South China and East China Seas have not gone unnoticed. China’s military construction and reclamation activities on some of the disputed Spratly islands in violation of international norms have raised the spectre of possible conflict as a mechanism for the resolution of disputes.
Dragon’s Defence Preparedness
- Modest hike in its defence budget indicates that China will
continue its pursuit of trying to emerge as a formidable military power in Asia.
- The Central Military Commission’s marked emphasis on making
China a maritime power has set alarm bells ringing in Asian capitals.
- China’s recent reclamation
activities have raised the spectre of possible conflict as a mechanism for the
resolution of disputes.
- India has barely kept pace with its neighbour and its defence
budget is now a little over one-fourth compared to that of China.
Military Gap Between India And China
China’s military aims and modernisation strategy have been enunciated in its White Papers on National Defence which goes on to say: “... a three-step development strategy in modernising China’s national defence and armed forces, in accordance with the state’s overall plan to realise modernisation. The first step is to lay a solid foundation by 2010, the second is to make major progress around 2020, and the third is to basically reach the strategic goal of building informationised armed forces and being capable of winning informationised wars by the mid-21st century.”
Compared with China, India’s budgetary transparency is indeed noteworthy – even though many Indian analysts are of the view that the government does not disclose sufficient details in the Defence Services Estimates. The annual increase in India’s defence budget has barely kept pace with inflation and the steadily declining value of the Rupee.
At Rs 2,46,727 crore for 2015-16 (US$ 39.80 billion), India’s defence budget is now a little over one-fourth of China’s declared ODE of US$ 145.68 billion. Due to China’s vigorous military modernisation drive, the military gap between India and China is growing every year.
Challenges For India
In recent military training exercises and war games, the PLA has been practising rapid deployment of its airborne forces in Tibet and elsewhere and amphibious landing operations to simulate landings on one or more of the disputed islands. The trend-lines in the procurement of military hardware and training activities are indicative of future plans for strategic outreach.
With the improved logistics infrastructure in Tibet, including the Gormo-Lhasa all-weather railway line, newly constructed road axes with good lateral roads linking them and many new air strips, the Chinese are now capable of inducting larger numbers of troops into Tibet in a shorter time frame and sustaining them for longer durations. India needs to invest more in improving the logistics infrastructure along the border with Tibet, in hi-tech intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems for early warning and in generating land and air-based firepower asymmetries to counter China’s numerical superiority. The Indian army is in the process of raising and suitably equipping a mountain strike corps to carry the fight into Chinese territory if it ever becomes necessary.
All of these capabilities will require a large infusion of fresh capital. The present defence budget – 1.78 percent of the GDP – is too low to undertake the capacity building that is necessary to deter China from contemplating another border war. India’s growing economy should be able to sustain a 1.0 percent hike in the defence budget over a period of three to five years, especially if the government simultaneously shows the courage to reduce wasteful subsidies.
(The author is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.)
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