China’s defense budget this year is likely to rise at its slowest pace since 2010, in line with the decelerating economy, by a much lower figure than had been expected, although it probably does not represent the true spending number.
Fu Ying, spokeswoman for China’s parliament, said the figure would increase by about seven to eight percent from 2015, following a nearly unbroken two-decade run of double-digit budget increases.
Fu told a news conference the actual figure would be released on Saturday, when the annual session of China’s largely rubber-stamp legislative body opens.
It will be the first single-digit rise in spending since 2010, when the military budget logged a 7.5 percent increase.
Defense spending last year was budgeted to rise 10.1 percent to 886.9 billion yuan ($135.39 billion), which still only represents about one-quarter that of the United States.
The U.S. Defense Department budget for 2016 is $573 billion.
China’s leaders have routinely sought to justify military modernization by linking defense spending to rapid GDP growth. But growth of 6.9 percent last year was the slowest in 25 years, and a further slowdown is widely expected in 2016.
“One simple reason for the lower increase is that double digit growth is now harder to sustain,” said Bonji Obara of the Tokyo Foundation think-tank.
“But another reason is that China’s anti-corruption campaign means less money is being siphoned off and spending has become more efficient,” he added, referring to President Xi Jinping’s vigorous efforts to root out graft.
The defense budget had been widely expected in military and diplomatic circles to log another impressive increase.
Fu said the budget was based on China’s national defense needs, the state of its economy and the performance of its fiscal revenues.
China has been repeatedly criticized for a lack of transparency in its defense spending and its intentions.
“China needs to be transparent and explain its military spending to the international community,” Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said in Tokyo ahead of Fu’s announcement.
“It’s crucial that China does not upset the regional balance and that it firmly contribute to international stability.”
China’s military build-up has rattled nerves around the region, particularly because China has taken an increasingly assertive stance in its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.
“By bringing down military spending to a level in line with economic growth, China can deflect criticism from overseas and at home,” added Obara, a former military attaché at Japan’s embassy in Beijing.
“The level of spending is enough for China to meet its goals of becoming a global presence.”
Xi is also now seeking to drag the People’s Liberation Army into the modern age, cutting 300,000 jobs and revamping its Cold War-era command structure.
However, the reforms have run into opposition from soldiers and officers worried about job security.
Beijing is also feeling public pressure to show it can protect its claims to the South China Sea after the United States began conducting “freedom of navigation” operations near islands where China has been carrying out controversial reclamation work and stationing advanced weapons.
Fu said the United States was militarizing the South China Sea with constant deployments of ships and aircraft.
“Our expansion and building of islands and reefs in the South China Sea is really necessary, and the Chinese people all support it,” she said.
If the United States continues to boost its military presence in the region, China will have to build more islands and deploy more weapons, the influential state-run Global Times said in an editorial.
“If two nuclear powerhouses engage in a competition to test each other’s willpower, the whole world will face the repercussions,” it said.
While Beijing keeps secret the details of its military spending, experts have said additional funding would probably go towards beefing up the navy with anti-submarine ships and developing aircraft carriers beyond a sole vessel in operation.
China last year confirmed it was building its second carrier.
(Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)