Defying pressure for a strong increase in defense spending, China said on Saturday its military budget this year would grow about 7%, its slowest pace since 2010.
Last year, with China’s economy slowing, the defense budget recorded its lowest increase in six years, 7.6%, the first single-digit rise since 2010 and following a nearly unbroken two-decade run of double-digit increases.
With Donald Trump proposing a 10% jump in US military spending in 2017, and worries about potential disputes with America over the South China Sea and the status of Taiwan, some in China had been pressing for a forceful message from this year’s defense budget.
Influential state-run tabloid the Global Times this week called for a rise of at least 10% to deal with the uncertainty brought by Trump, and a retired senior general told Hong Kong and Taiwan media that 12% would be needed to match the US rise.
“It’s not enough,” a source with ties to senior Chinese officers told Reuters. “A lot of people in the military won’t be happy with this.”
The actual number for defense spending will be released later on Sunday, when China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament begins its annual session.
Parliament spokeswoman Fu Ying, who announced the increase, said defense spending would account for about 1.3% of GDP, the same level as the past few years.
China’s economic growth target for 2017 is expected to be lowered to around 6.5% from last year’s 6.5%-7% when Premier Li Keqiang gives his work report to parliament.
Last year normally talkative military delegates to parliament largely declined to talk to foreign media about the slowing rate of military spending, saying they had been ordered not to speak to foreign reporters.
China’s military build-up has rattled nerves around the region, particularly because of Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance in its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas and over Taiwan.
Fu dismissed concerns about China’s military.
“Look at the past decade or so; there have been so many conflicts, even wars, around the world resulting in serious, large numbers of casualties and loss of property, so many refugees destitute and homeless. Which one has China caused?” she said.
There are other concerns for China’s military, including how to deal with the 300,000 troops President Xi Jinping announced in 2015 would be cut, mainly by the end of 2017.
Last month Chinese military veterans demonstrated in central Beijing for two consecutive days, demanding unpaid retirement benefits in a new wave of protests highlighting the difficulty in managing demobilized troops.
A 7% rise for this year based on last year’s budget would bring the figure to 1.02 trillion yuan, only a quarter or so of the US defense budget. Still, China’s announced spending is widely believed to understate the real amount.
The White House has proposed a 10% increase in military spending to US$603 billion, even though the United States has wound down major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is already the world’s preeminent military power.
“We need the ability to safeguard our sovereignty and interests and rights,” Fu said. “In particular, we need to guard against outside meddling in the disputes.”
Future trends in the region “will depend on US intentions vis-a-vis the region and US activities [which] to a certain extent set the barometer for the situation here,” Fu said.
“Probably fundamentally the United States is concerned that China may catch up with the United States in terms of capability, but we are a developing country. There is a huge gap between China and the US in capability.”
Chinese state media said recently that China was testing the latest version of its fifth-generation stealth fighter, part of a campaign to end the West’s monopoly on the world’s most advanced warplanes.
China also for the first time sent its sole aircraft carrier into the Pacific for exercise in December, according to Chinese reports.
Barthelemy Courmont, a senior research fellow at the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said it was understandable that a modernizing China would seek more advanced armed forces.
“But this development also reflects Beijing’s ambition to impose its supremacy over Asia by giving itself the means of being a credible power,” he said.
The territorial tensions were leading to a “senseless arms race” in the region, he said.
“It’s often in reaction to China’s spending increases that neighboring countries also decide to strengthen their military capacities,” he said.