BEIJING—China on Monday unveiled its largest rise in defense spending in three years, setting a target of 8.1 percent growth over 2017, fuelling an ambitious military modernization program amid rising concerns over its security.
The 2018 defense budget will be 1.11 trillion yuan ($175 billion), according to a report issued at the opening of China’s annual meeting of parliament.
The defense spending figure is closely watched around the world for clues to China’s strategic intentions as it develops new military capabilities, including stealth fighters, aircraft carriers and anti-satellite missiles.
China will “advance all aspects of military training and war preparedness, and firmly and resolvedly safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests”, Premier Li Keqiang told the opening session in an address.
“Faced with profound changes in the national security environment” the absolute leadership of the military by the ruling Communist Party must be observed, and the unity between the government and the military, and the people and the military, must always be “strong as stone”, he said.
Li also said China had basically completed efforts to cut back the size of its armed forces by 300,000, a move President Xi Jinping announced in 2015 to improve efficiency that had caused unease in the ranks.
“The pace and scale of this build-up is really dramatic. It is extremely alarming for Australia and many other countries in the region,” said Sam Roggeveen, a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University in Canberra.
“There is every indication that China wants to expand what it will call defense capabilities in the South China Sea. I expect eventually we will see warships and aircraft there regularly, if not based there permanently. What is unclear, however, is whether the United States will want to rise to that challenge.”
China does not provide a breakdown of how it allocates its defense budget, leading neighbors and other military powers to complain that Beijing’s lack of transparency has added to regional tension.
Diplomats say China’s defense numbers probably underestimate true military spending for the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest armed forces, which are in the midst of an impressive modernization program overseen by Xi.
One senior Asia diplomat, speaking before the announcement, said the real rise would probably be at least double what China revealed, considering its efforts to build up the industrial military complex and deepen military-civilian integration.
“Some spending will be hidden in civilian spending,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
China’s military build-up has rattled the nerves of its neighbors, particularly because of its increasingly assertive stance in the East and South China Seas and over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.
“We would like to see China be more transparent about its defense policy, including spending and the direction of its military power,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular briefing.