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China’s military made history practically every day last week. On Thursday it was the Lin Yi, a guided missile frigate, which spent 75 minutes moored in war-torn Yemen’s port of Aden before setting off to Djibouti with 225 evacuees.
Billed by Beijing as the navy’s first international maritime rescue evacuation, the mission helps show the rising ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army.
A few days earlier, state television showed a satellite photo of three submarines anchored at a top-secret base on China’s southern island of Hainan. The report identified them as the navy’s most advanced Type-093G nuclear powered attack submarines, which experts say will start China’s first patrol by nuclear powered subs later this year.
And to top off a busy week, Pakistan agreed “in principle” to buy eight Chinese submarines in a deal that could be worth up to $5bn — the most lucrative Chinese arms contract ever.
China also announced last month that it is building a second aircraft carrier and that its defence spending would rise this year by 10.1 per cent, marking 27 years of double-digit or near double-digit increases. Over the past five years, China’s arms exports have grown by 143 per cent, making it the world’s third-largest arms trader, according to a new study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).
Is China militarising? Or simply building up its military? The distinction is more than semantic. Militarising is what countries do when they intend to use their military, and is measured not just in ships and tanks, but also in behaviour. China’s neighbours, such as Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, are becoming skittish about Beijing beefing up its hold over disputed islands. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, has likened this to the creation of “a Great Wall of sand”, referring to a large-scale dredging operation to create land on isolated reefs for ports, barracks and even air strips.
Beijing’s rapid spending increases and stubborn defence of its maritime claims, including an area of ocean sticking out into the South China Sea called the “nine dash line” and over islands in the East China Sea disputed with Japan, threaten to ignite an arms race across Asia. Largely due to China’s build-up, Japan has begun to debate the merits of its pacifist postwar constitution.
“If you look at China from a military perspective, their defence expenditure has been increasing for 27 consecutive years at the rate of nearly double digits every year and, right now, China’s defence budget is 3.6 times larger than the defence budget of Japan,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Financial Times last month.
Beijing has been taking on international commitments, starting with a mission in 2008 to deploy its navy off the east coast of Africa to combat piracy, the first time the navy has deployed that far in 600 years. Last year a Chinese frigate helped to escort an international convoy carrying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile out of the country, while Chinese submarines took their first known voyages into the Indian Ocean, with one sub docking twice in Sri Lanka.
There have also been episodes of sabre-rattling. On the eve of a visit to New Delhi by Chinese President Xi Jinping last September, Chinese forces moved closer to India along a disputed border in the Himalayas, though it is still not clear whether this was the result of a Chinese provocation or more aggressive patrolling by Indian troops. In November 2013, Beijing’s defence ministry announced an “air defence identification zone”, which requires all aircraft travelling through it to identify themselves and covers islands in the East China Sea claimed by Japan.
That move took even the foreign ministry by surprise, according to one former Chinese official. “Usually something like that is done with rounds of consultations,” said a western diplomat. “They [the defence ministry] just sort of sprung it.”
Few would deny that China’s role in the world is increasing, but how much defence does a country need? The way countries spend money tells a lot about their intentions. Little-noticed in 2013, Russia upped defence expenditures by 25 per cent to become the third-largest defence spender in the world, a year before Russian troops quietly seized roads and chokepoints across Crimea, precipitating war in eastern Ukraine.
If Beijing’s strategy is judged just on the numbers, China’s 10-fold increase in annual defence spending from 1989 seems exceptional. “I can’t think of similar cases that weren’t [in] wartime or leading up to war,” says Sam Perlo-Freeman, an expert on defence spending at Sipri. In recent decades, only Georgia, which increased expenditures 26-fold between 2000 and 2007, exceeded China’s breakneck speed — and this ended in the 2008 war with Russia.
But measured another way, as a part of the overall economy, China’s military spending starts to look more normal. For all the talk of trophy armaments and aggressive rhetoric from Beijing, military expenditures are small by international standards if measured as a percentage of GDP. In fact, if militarisation means increasing the role of the armed forces relative to wider society, China’s military spending is actually less than many of its neighbours as a percentage of GDP.
The measurements matter: China military spending is slightly outpacing economic growth if expenditure is adjusted for inflation using consumer price indicator yields, but it is undershooting overall growth if the GDP deflator, a measure of price rises or falls, is factored in.
Rhetoric and reality
“We focus so much on what the PLA wants and what the PLA will do, it’s easy to lose focus on what the PLA is actually doing,” says Jack Midgley, director of the strategy consulting practice at Deloitte in Tokyo. “When people say China is engaging in an aggressive military build-up, the numbers tell a different story.”
Defence should be seen as a component of China’s overall economic development, he says. “There is more of everything in China now, there are more cellphones, there’s more air pollution, there are more babies [and] there are also more tanks and one more aircraft carrier.”
Mr Perlo-Freeman says that while official figures may understate total defence spending, even taking into account items usually left out of the tally only brings the total to about 2-2.1 per cent of GDP — nowhere near militarised nations such as Israel or the Arab Gulf states, which spend about 6-10 per cent of GDP on military budgets. That percentage has not changed significantly, since military spending has been growing in line with the Chinese economy. And as a share of general government expenditure it has fallen since 2012, from about 11-12 per cent to 7 per cent in 2013, before ticking up slightly in 2014.
“One can say that, while the Chinese government has certainly been putting a lot of money into the military, it has actually been giving higher relative priority to other areas,” says Mr Perlo-Freeman.
China’s arms exports can also be counted in different ways. The foreign ministry took issue with the Sipri study of arms exports, claiming the study measured volumes of arms rather than price, which is not usually made publicly available. Measuring by volume, it says, understates the exports of the US, which are more expensive.
Moreover, other analysts say that despite the impressive rollout of high-tech equipment, China’s army still has very little operational capability for the most advanced systems.
“The military appears to run on slogans,” says one western diplomat in Beijing with extensive knowledge of China’s PLA. “But operationally they have a long way to go.” The lack of transport aircraft, for example, makes it is increasingly common to see hordes of PLA soldiers boarding Chinese commercial airlines flights bound for duty.
While much of the spending is on prestige projects such as the Liaoning, a Soviet aircraft carrier that China commissioned in 2012 after refitting it, experts say that without huge improvements in combat readiness, training and doctrine — not to mention smaller support vessels — such trophy platforms will be sitting ducks in a conflict.
“There are individual US pilots that have had more carrier landings than the whole of the Chinese military,” says Mr Midgley. Gary Li, an independent defence analyst on Beijing, adds that having an aircraft carrier “does not equate to knowing how to use it. They are years away from being able to conduct carrier operations.”
The PLA is actually the smallest it has been in terms of manpower and weaponry since 1949, but it is much more efficient and boasts far better equipment. Tai Ming Cheung, director of the Institute on Global Conflict & Co-operation at the University of California in San Diego, says China’s military is much stronger in terms of its capacity for lethal operations because of technological advances and improved training.
Going for quality over quantity is at the heart of a reform announced in 2013, aimed at reducing or eliminating bloated elements in the PLA’s ranks. The army will eventually have to get rid of troupes of dancers, opera singers and drivers who are more representative of a former era when ideological concerns were more pressing.
Shifts in command
The reform will also reorganise the command structure, which is dominated by the land forces, and give the air force and navy separate command authority commensurate with their new prominence. The moves reflect a shift away from former strategic priorities, such as fighting a land war against the Soviet Union, towards projecting power into the western Pacific region.
Simultaneously, Mr Xi is strengthening the Communist party’s hold over the military with a thorough crackdown on corruption: dozens if not hundreds of senior officers have been investigated.
Mr Cheung says that analysing budgets and the number of troops tells only half the story of China’s military strategy. More important is the intrusion into the public sphere of military and security issues, which were previously not a priority in the post-Mao era when economic development was key.
“I would argue that China may be adjusting from being a developmental state, to becoming more of a national security state in which security priorities are becoming the most important considerations for the Chinese leadership,” he says.
Further reading: Corruption — Party bids to regain control of army with crackdown
Beijing’s purge on graft has ensnared a number of top generals in the People’s Liberation Army and raised uncomfortable questions about the relationship between the military and its superiors in the Communist party.
Technically the party controls the military, but insiders say that one of the motivations for the graft probes, which have so far taken down Xu Caihou, formerly the top-ranked military officer in China who died of cancer last month, was to reassert party control, as well as smooth the way for reforms. Political analysts say the campaign was launched by President Xi Jinping after he saw the disrespect with which the PLA treated his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
The problem is not one of insubordination but mismanagement, some analysts say. For decades the army has been a private fiefdom which runs on bribery and patronage.
“The problem with the PLA is not a loyalty issue,” says Trey McArver, who edits the China Politics Weekly newsletter, “it’s a lack of discipline and professionalisation. The PLA is not combat-ready and Xi and other top leaders realise this, and are trying to address the problem by rooting out corruption.”
The anti-corruption drive has been unsparing of top generals. When investigators came to search General Xu’s home, they found so much cash and precious gems that they needed a week to count it all and 12 trucks to haul it away. Last month, the Communist party’s Central Military Commission published the names of another 14 senior officers it had placed under investigation for corruption.
While some former officers report a “climate of fear” within the ranks as a result of the crackdown on graft, many mid-ranking officers welcome it. As the PLA Daily, the army’s own newspaper, recently put it: “The attitude towards anti-corruption is deadly serious, and there are hardcore measures. The number of major cases made public shows how the party and our military have the drive and the determination to reform and purify itself.”