Is China’s Military Buildup Excessive? (I/II)

China’s perception of its neighbors and its environment shapes its military expenditure and planning. This is the first of two parts.

Senior American officials including the Secretaries of State and of Defense have remarked that China’s recent military buildup is quite excessive given the country’s security environment. China has expanded its defense budget in recent years by up to 20% per year, becoming the country with the 2nd largest military expenditure in the world after the United States. In order to assess whether China’s buildup is truly excessive or not, the statistics about China’s military spending should not be scrutinized in an isolated way. This number has to be examined objectively within the overall context of China’s position in the international system. This two-part article will analyze the modernization of the People Liberation’s Army (PLA) by considering China’s perception of its security environment, the growth of China’s defense budget vis-à-vis the United States’ military expenditure, the shortcomings of China’s buildup, and the influence that China’s military development has on the current strategic alignment in Asia. 

China’s Security Environment   

Senior American officials claim that given China’s security environment, the country does not need to build up its military. However, China’s challenging security environment actually necessitates the need to modernize its forces. In Rising to the challenge: China's grand strategy and international security, Avery Goldstein argues that China’s neighbors are either great, or potentially great, powers, or a few minor powers that share a long history with China. None may be enemies today, but China needs a strategy for coping with the potential problems that might result from deterioration in relations with any of them. China directly borders Russia and Vietnam, with whom the country has had serious border conflicts in the past, as China fought the Soviet Union in 1969 and Vietnam in 1979. In addition, China is wary of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Thailand, that have been strengthening bilateral military relations with the United States in recent years. Most importantly, China’s political dispute with Taiwan and the likelihood that it could lead to a military confrontation involving the United States make the Taiwan Strait arguably the most crucial security challenge on China’s boundaries. This challenging security environment makes China’s military buildup a sensible decision, given that China cannot rely on any other country but itself to guarantee its security.      

Who Spends More?

At the end of the Cold War in 1989 China’s defense expenditure was $5.86bn. According to the 2012 Military Expenditure Database of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIRPI), China spent $143bn on its defense in 2011, which was 24 times more than what it had been in 1989. China’s military budget now accounts for 2.2% of the country’s GDP and 8.2% of the world’s total military expenditure. These numbers demonstrate that China has indeed expanded its defense expenditure significantly. However, China’s spending pales in comparison with that of the United States. The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database indicates that the United States spent $711bn on its defense in 2011, which was roughly five times larger than China’s spending in the same year. The United States’ military budget accounts for 4.7% of the country’s GDP and 41% of global arms expenditure. If top American officials view China’s military buildup as excessive, they will also have to admit that the United States’ defense spending, which is more than the next ten largest military spenders combined, is even more excessive.

People’s Lamentable Army  

China’s military is primarily prepared to deal with regional situations and has limited capability to fight more than a few hundred miles from its borders. The PLA Navy currently does not own aircraft carriers or long-range bombers and possesses few aerial refueling aircraft, so its capability to handle air combat is severely constrained by the unrefueled combat radii of its fighters and medium bombers. Many of the new weapons systems the PLA is obtaining will be used to inflict sufficient damages in order to accomplish strategically defensive objectives, for example to deter Taiwan independence and deter or delay potential intervention from the United States. Meanwhile, even though China has long been a large land power, the PLA cannot maximize the capabilities of its ground forces. Because most of China’s land borders are adjacent to China’s interior regions, far from China’s industrial bases and with poorly established infrastructures, it will be logistically demanding for the PLA to project and sustain the ground forces’ power. The PLA has very limited capability and it would be far fetched to presume that the projection of power reaches beyond China’s borders.  

Another deficiency of the PLA’s buildup is that China’s military modernization remains incomplete. Thus far, only a third of China’s air force equipment, less than half of its navy’s, and only a small percentage of the army’s have undergone renovations. The rudimentary nature is also reflected in the PLA’s organizational development, as attempts to enhance the quality of its officers and implement updated training regimes are also incomplete. Even though China may have the largest standing army in the world and is modernizing its forces, it is not a uniformly large and modern military. Instead, the PLA presents a conglomeration of a huge but outdated force and a modernized but smaller force. Additionally, being the largest standing army does not immediately translate into being the most capable army. Even though the PLA has been modernizing itself, it has not finished doing so which means that China’s capabilities are still generations behind the United States’ with no sign of a rapidly narrowing gap. According to R.A. Cossa’s paper Security dynamics in east asia: Geopolitics vs. regional institutions, even the Pentagon, which is regularly accused of exaggerating the Chinese threat, evaluates that “China does not yet possess the military capability to accomplish with confidence its political objectives on [Taiwan]” and that “China will take until the end of this decade or later to produce a modern force capable of defeating a moderate-size adversary”. The incompleteness of PLA’s military modernization hinders its effectiveness and this further demonstrates that China’s buildup is not excessive.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.

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