Written by Harry J. Kazianis.
Recently China issued its latest defense budget numbers revealing a 12.2% increase in funding for that nation’s armed forces. While many pundits quickly took to the pages of various blogs and op-ed pages—some of which offered some finely balanced and tight analysis—I had a different take: Who cares?
OK, let me back up for a second before the hate emails overload my Inbox. As China watchers here in Washington, many of us witness the same cycle over and over again this time of year—although less so it seems this year now that Ukraine is dominating the headlines. We read various reports with great interest, do the normal rounds of interviews, react in various op-eds—analyzing and reanalyzing Beijing’s double-digit increases in defense spending. Rinse and repeat. Yet, reading what seems like the same recycled lines over and over feels more like a 2014 Chinese defense version of the movie Groundhog Day than some new chunk of insightful analysis.
In just repeating a data point over and over again I would make the argument we are missing the larger point when it comes to China and its growing military capabilities in the mainstream media. Some of this is simply the nature of how we take in news thanks to a 24-hour cycle and social media–the bigger the headline, the sexier you can make it in 140 characters, the better. However, such an important issue really needs to be treated with much more context. How does such a growing budget growth translate into increased capabilities? How does China’s military stack up in various scenarios? Against possible challengers like Taiwan, Japan or even the U.S.? Big deal China’s defense budget is going up year after year. We all know this. What does Beijing get for those extra Yuan? That is the more interesting, and I would argue, more relevant query. Indeed, the answer to such a question presents scholars with a daily challenge, hence the flood of op-eds and blog posts all essentially repeating the same tired phrases over and over around every March 5th.
Despite the challenge of looking past the headlines and trying to gain something from such information we do have various lenses to understand the growing capabilities of China’s armed forces. So what is China getting for its money? A few recent examples come to mind.
According to the most recent U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Annual Threat Assessment penned by Director Michael Flynn (missed by many analysts which has many good insights, a good read) he explains that “the PLA navy is developing the JIN-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile. We expect the navy will make their first nuclear deterrence patrols in 2014. It has also recently deployed for the first time a nuclear-powered attack submarine to the Indian Ocean.” Flynn goes further stating, “China is also continuing negotiations for the joint-design and production for a new advanced conventional submarine based on the Russian LADA-class. China’s investment in naval weapons primarily focuses on anti-air and anti-surface capabilities to achieve periodic and local sea and air superiority within the first island chain.”
While a lot of information is presented in such a small snippet, we clearly get a sense of where Beijing’s military is headed: towards a force that is capable of exacting a high cost to potential adversaries thanks to its A2/AD strategy out towards the first and in the coming decade second island chain. But something of even greater importance is in the offing. China is slowly putting the pieces together to deploy a fully capable nuclear triad as well as nuclear attack submarines that can patrol greater distances with increasing capabilities. With a possible partner to share the R&D workload in Moscow now that relations with the West are in tatters, Beijing may profit from another infusion of Russian technology. Translation: clear evidence China’s capabilities thanks to increased investment are growing. One could utilize a whole host of examples but the trend lines are clear.
So what does the future hold for China’s military? Well, predicting the future is never easy but one can certainly identify one threat to Beijing’s mighty military– and its not America’s Air-Sea Battle Concept. If China’s economy were to slow down dramatically Beijing could be forced to shrink the growth of its armed forces in an effort to shift resources towards maintaining strong growth. We must remember domestic security trumps all other considerations–even disputes with its neighbors that grab the headlines. If this were to transpire a situation could ensue where Beijing focuses its efforts on developing its A2/AD strategy while forgoing the expense of a military with global capabilities. There is a certain advantage in doing something, doing it well, and in a specific theatre of operations that reflects one’s own “core interests.”
Truthfully, I am sure in the years to come every early March I will be greeted to the normal “China’s defense budget xxxxxx.” Heck, maybe even one day we will be greeted with a decrease. But let’s try and do our part in educating the public on what these numbers mean in the broader context. The rise of China’s military is certainly a fascinating story, but it’s what lies behind the headlines that is the real story.
Harry J. Kazianis is Managing Editor of the National Interest and a non-resident WSD fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: PACNET. Harry is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute and a Regular Contributor at the CPI blog.