BEIJING — China’s military spending has been rapidly spiraling upward, and the growing amounts are unnerving Beijing’s Asian neighbors and policy planners in the Pentagon, who are openly wary about the country’s long-term intentions.
Getting a handle on Chinese military spending is difficult because much of it is opaque and off the books, such as the People’s Liberation Army’s spending on research and space exploration. But various international think tanks estimate that China’s military spending has risen from about $20 billion in 2002 to at least $120 billion last year.
The United States still spends four times as much on its military. But by some accounts, China is on course to surpass the United States in total military spending by 2035.
The increased spending has allowed the PLA to embark on a sweeping modernization program that includes new long-range cruise missiles, a new fleet of J-10 and J-11 fighter jets, an experimental stealth J-20 plane, a refurbished Soviet-era aircraft carrier and a growing space program, which includes China’s own satellite navigation network. The PLA has also embarked on a long-term campaign to improve the inter-operability of its various ground, naval and air forces — long a weak point for the Chinese military.
Some critics, including China’s skeptical neighbors, are alarmed at the spending, which they say is being used to bolster China’s more assertive stance over long-disputed, uninhabited islands in the South China and East China seas. Longer term, some predict, China’s growing military might shift the balance with American-armed Taiwan, which Chinese leaders consider a renegade province to be reunited with the mainland.
The military growth has led the Obama administration to refocus America’s defense posture away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese buildup has also caused Japan and some Southeast Asian countries to seek reassurance from the United States that they won’t be abandoned, although Chinese diplomats have accused the United States of meddling in what are essentially regional disputes.
Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan of the China Military Science Society said outsiders need not be concerned. China’s military spending only reflects the newly booming economy, he said, and the country is simply playing catch up after years of neglect.
“Actually, our rapid spending increase in recent years is more like compensation for the past,” Luo said. “Second, the huge increase in our budget is because China faces a lot of threats, traditional and nontraditional. We have a lot of land occupied by other countries. We’re also one of the countries in the world with the most neighbors.”
Luo also said that while other sectors are enjoying the fruits of reform, the armed forces should not be neglected.
“It’s important that a person not only grow his bones, but also his muscles,” Luo said. “The military is the muscles.”