Beijing has splashed trillions of yuan on its military buildup, but the war on corruption in the People’s Liberation Army remains a protracted battle. Photo: Xinhua
Beijing has spent trillions of yuan on expanding its military, which is not expected to face any budget cuts. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing is seeing its revenues dwindle due to the battering Covid-19 has given the Chinese economy, but that does not mean the People’s Liberation Army’s funding will be cut.

This is the latest news from the Chinese capital as deputies from across the nation, as well as those from the military, head for the Great Hall of the People for the long-delayed annual parliamentary session being held on Friday.

It is unlikely that these representatives will have too much of a say over the allotment for the PLA or even raise objections to any proposed increases in the funding, since the nation’s annual budget, to be tabled by the central government, is for mere pro forma deliberation and approval by the members of the National People’s Congress.

The PLA generals and deputies channeling the wishes of the hardline faction of the top leadership have already made a strong case for increasing the nation’s defense budget, in the face of a more belligerent Washington and a more volatile and fickle security environment on several fronts – from Taiwan to Tibet and from cyberspace to the South China Sea – that require more resources to enable the PLA to ramp up its capabilities.

The bottomline is said to be an increase that shall not fall short of last year’s level of 7.5%.

There is also a rallying cry to spend more on increasing capacity – and island-building – to fill the power vacuum in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea created by the US fight against the novel coronavirus. The PLA has a once-in-a-blue-moon strategic opportunity in the vast yet troubled waters.

The PLA also needs to be combat-ready for possible hostilities between the two feuding sides of the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen yet again rejected any possibility of reunification with China in her inauguration speech on Wednesday. The second term of the independence-leaning leader will turn out to be even more eventful and thus the Chinese military must beef up its posturing and deterrence capabilities.

Against that backdrop, the Pentagon’s decision to sell the self-ruled island 18 heavyweight torpedoes for US$180 million may bolster the PLA’s argument that it needs more resources.

Also, Beijing’s ambition to design and commission more aircraft carriers, potentially nuclear-powered, as well as destroyers, stealth fighters and other cutting-edge assets does not come cheap.

China’s President Xi Jinping reviews troops of the People’s Liberation Army. Photo: AFP /The Yomiuri Shimbun

The PLA’s budget in 2019 was around 1.2 trillion yuan (US$170 billion), according to available officials figures, though some military outlays are often camouflaged as those on infrastructure or industrial investment, among other things. For instance, the trillions of yuan splurged in the disputed waters in the South China Sea to fortify reefs and atolls have never appeared in the national accounts for defense.

China has long outspent Russia, India, France, Japan, Germany, among others, and was second only to the US on a 2019 list of military expenditures compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which put Beijing’s appropriation for the PLA at US$261 billion. The corresponding figure for the US military was US$732 billion.

A commentary in Xinhua, meanwhile, claimed that China’s defense spending vis-à-vis its gross domestic product showed Beijing’s “magnanimity” in its dealings with other nations as well as its commitment to “non-hegemonic, peaceful development” and “love of peace.”

It said that China spent less on defense than other major powers on a “per capita basis” and that the nation’s defense budget was equivalent to 1.5% of its GDP, compared with the NATO’s goal of boosting military spending to 2% of GDP for its member states.

Analysts say if the PLA is assured of ample backing, then Beijing will have to rein in its spending on other commitments.

Preliminary figures from the Finance Ministry show total turnover from all provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions to the central government slumped 16.5% to a little over 2.1 trillion yuan in the first quarter.

Since Beijing has also pledged more support for healthcare and drug and vaccine research and development as the nation reels from the debilitating toll from the pneumonic plague, it will need to reduce other expenditures.

Xinhua reported earlier this week that all local governments had been mandated not to build new office blocks or renovate those already in use for the next five years.