Hidden Dragon: China's 'Smoke and Mirrors' Military Posture

A sheep in wolves' clothing? 

Every year at the beginning of March, China convenes the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference to listen to the premier’s government work report, consider new laws and discuss China’s future. The so-called “Two Meetings” also include a large contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegates, who play up the legitimacy of China’s approach to security and justify the security budget. Compared to previous years, the PLA contingent downplayed the military’s deterrent role and avoided any “peace through strength” talk. On policy, President Xi Jinping reiterated the importance of military-civil integration as the way for China’s military to develop the human and technical expertise to achieve the goal of “fighting and winning local wars under informatized conditions.”

On March 4, National People’s Congress (NPC) spokeswoman Fu Ying announced that the official military budget would rise roughly 10 percent, setting off the annual coverage of Chinese defense spending and what the figure means for the PLA’s modernization. As always, Chinese government voices pushed back and pointed out how little the budget increase buys the PLA—something that cannot be verified on the information China makes publicly available.

Beijing’s propaganda attacked Western concerns about Chinese intentions, making a fourfold argument about why the increase does not speak to nefarious intent.

First, the defense-budget increases have been forced on an isolated China, because it must be self-reliant in the face of an arms embargo “groundlessly forced on China by the European Union and the United States. In this sense, the West is a catalyst for China’s relatively ‘big’ military budget.”

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Second, defense spending is increasing to support more realistic training, as well as more international training, which Chinese media claimed almost doubled between 2013 and 2014.

Third, Peng Guangqian, one of the lead authors on previous editions of The Science of Military Strategy, observed that armaments and equipment becoming more expensive is a “universal practice and trend in every country,” explaining increases in the defense budget.

Fourth, according to Major General Xu Guangyu, a senior consultant to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, “the current military spending is still very insufficient and cannot fully meet the needs of China’s national defense.” Chinese media avoided discussing absolute budget numbers compared to other countries, instead taking a novel approach to discuss “per capita” (more properly, per soldier) spending. For example, a China Daily article compared China’s roughly $61,800 per soldier to the United States’ $416,666 per soldier and Japan’s $168,016, taking these numbers as a sign that China’s defense had dramatic room to grow before it could be considered a threat.

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The message seemed to be: Irrespective of the PLA’s insufficient funding, China, of course, is unthreatening. Beijing also enlisted the aid a U.S. ally, Egypt, to reinforce its propaganda. One Egyptian scholar opined “China is a strong and peaceful country. We never heard about a Chinese invasion or occupation.” A retired Egyptian general added “I believe the Chinese policy in general is inclined to peacefulness, as I don’t remember a case when China made an act of aggression against a neighboring or non-neighboring state.”