China Can't Afford to Keep Challenging America on Military Spending

Military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the Chinese people’s victory in the War of Resistance against Japan and the end of World War II.

A more modest Chinese military footprint will likely emerge in 2017 or 2018.

China's Budget Starts to Bite

China plans a 7 percent boost to military spending in 2017. Even that may be more than it can afford.

On Saturday, China announced a 2017 spending growth target of 7 percent in nominal yuan terms. That represents a real yuan increase of less than 5 percent. Or, assuming that the People’s Liberation Army buys its tanks wholesale, applying China’s current producer price inflation index of 6.9 percent leaves no growth at all.

In 2016, China’s official military spending rose 7.6 percent. Adjusted for inflation, that’s barely 5 percent. In U.S. dollar terms, it’s barely 3 percent. In real U.S. dollar terms, adjusted for inflation, it’s hardly any increase at all. Put simply, China’s defense spending is essentially flat.

Real spending increases of anywhere from 0–5 percent are a far cry from the “insider” estimates of just one year ago, when security experts were confidently predicting double-digit spending increases for 2016 and beyond. Figures as high as 30 percent were mooted as tensions rose in the South China Sea.

Readers of the National Interest knew better. On August 5, 2015, they learned that China did “not have the fiscal staying power to compete in the long game of history.” It was already clear in the middle of 2015 that China’s central government revenues were flatlining and that as a result “China’s military spending will be caught between a rock and a hard place.”

It is well-known that China’s official budget numbers don’t capture all of its military spending. But then, neither do America’s, or any other country’s. The best analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that China’s figures are close to real and getting closer. Even if the true total is unknown, the year-on-year increases seem credible.

Since the turn of the century, China’s defense spending has bounced up and down between 1.9 percent and 2.1 percent of GDP, according to estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). According to center, SIPRI estimates are the highest in the league; the U.S. Department of Defense, the British International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Chinese government itself all give lower figures.

To put China’s 2 percent in context, SIPRI’s method gives 3.3 percent for the United States, down from a high of 4.7 percent in 2010 and the UK comes in at 2.3 percent. China may throw around its growing power in a very aggressive manner, but in comparative terms it does not seem to be spending very much on its military.

China does have the world’s second-largest military budget, but this seems only natural considering that it also has the world’s second-largest economy, largest population, third largest territory, longest land borders and largest number of neighbors, many of them hostile. China also has to worry about internal rebellion. It must be tough being a Chinese military planner.

Economic woes: 

For those planners, life is about to get a lot tougher. China’s official economic growth has fallen to 6.7 percent, with a target of 6.5 percent for 2017. These are supposedly real rates, adjusted for inflation. But the nominal growth rate for 2016 was 8 percent while China’s inflation rates ranged from 2.1 percent for consumer prices to 5.5 percent for producer prices. Try squaring that circle.