The Chinese government announced a lower than anticipated economic growth target of 5% this weekend, but surprisingly stated that it will increase its defense budget by 7.2%. This statement reaffirms President Xi Jinping’s intentions to make China the world’s leading military power. China has been increasing its defense spending for the last 20 years, and last year, the Pentagon reported that Beijing’s official military budget nearly doubled from 2012 to 2021.
Even though China’s official military budget is estimated to be about $224 billion this year, analysts have suggested that Beijing spent around 1.7% of its economy on defense in 2021, which seems like a relatively small amount compared to the $800 billion spent by the United States, approximately 3% of its economy. However, Beijing’s published information on its military spending is so unreliable that it can be considered irrelevant. In reality, every dollar in the Chinese economy is spent on defense, and the government can appropriate private innovation for military purposes.
The government’s “military-civil fusion” strategy enables it to use civilian infrastructure, technology, and human capital for military purposes, as seen in The Wall Street Journal’s report about sensors on Chinese-made cranes. China’s Navy is the largest in the world by ship count, and its coast guard and fishing fleet are significant forces that China would command in a crisis. The fishing trawlers that were the first Chinese boats on the islands in the South China Sea that Beijing has since built into military bases illustrate this point.
China’s ultimate goal is to create a military that can project power beyond its regional waters and surpass the United States as the decisive actor in the region. China’s air power is also rapidly catching up to Western air forces, and the People’s Liberation Army rocket force is designed to push U.S. Navy and air assets out of the region. Furthermore, China is exploiting its advantages in Pacific geography to make any fight an away game for American forces.
China is backing up its conventional power with a nuclear breakout that is accelerating every year, with the Defense Department estimating that China had 400 warheads in 2022, double the figure from 2020. These warheads could be used to borrow from Vladimir Putin’s playbook and threaten to use them if Chinese forces are challenged, possibly at the outset of a Taiwan conflict.
China was cautious about its military plans for many years, taking its time to build its strength. However, it is now sprinting to take advantage of American complacency. Although war with China is not inevitable, preventing it will require the United States to match China’s defense commitment. It remains to be seen whether President Biden will appreciate the urgency when he unveils his defense budget later this week.
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