China goes for more military might
Mar 13 2014
Most importantly, the annual session of the National People’s Congress is also the occasion for the leaders of the administration, and particularly for the prime minister, to meet the national and international media and to enlighten the world about the course Chinese politics is going to take. This time, it was the first such public appearance of prime minister Li Keqiang who had been elevated to this post at last year’s Congress. Of course, these media encounters are carefully stage managed. The government presents the views and news it wants presented to the country and the public has to look for the finer signals and has to read between the lines in order to understand what is going to happen.
The main points in the prime minister’s presentation were economic growth and the environment. While the delegates to the National People’s Congress did not have to suffer under one of those extended bouts of heavy smog and air pollution that are regularly plaguing the Chinese capital, the political elite clearly feels pressure emanating from great public discontent about the degradation of the environment. This winter, the fine dust particles in the air in Beijing repeatedly reached danger levels that indicate serious and lasting harm to health. In fact, a scientific institute in Shanghai proclaimed Beijing as unliveable. Some reports claim that the pollution in Beijing and in many other heavily industrialised areas of the country have reached levels that will have a negative impact on the average life expectancy of the people.
The problem and challenge for the government, however, is that a speedy and drastic solution of the massive environmental problems the country is facing will entail measures that curtail economic growth. Already the growth of GDP has come down in recent times and the government expects growth for the forthcoming 12 months to be markedly under 8 per cent. While the urbanised middle classes in the big cities are clamouring for improved air quality, the huge factories, many of which are state-owned enterprises, cannot from one day to another stop pollution or in the extreme stop production altogether. This would have a serious impact on regional labour markets and thereby cause social disruption. In order to provide the majority of its huge population with positive outlooks for their personal economic well-being, the Chinese government is forced to go for high growth. As long as China’s industry still depends to a large extent on producing cheap goods for the export markets, it cannot afford expensive environmentally friendly technologies.
China’s ambition to be the world power of the 21st century is well known. In recent months, Beijing has made it, once again, abundantly clear to its neighbours that the times of the hegemon have come back. A number of southeast Asian countries and Japan are under pressure to concede territorial claims of the Chinese which would amount to making the seas beyond the Chinese coasts to become seas under Chinese sovereignty. This has serious implications not only for the neighbours, but for world trade in general.
Obviously, the Chinese leadership knows that mere words will not provide the influence and power Beijing aspires. Military hardware has to underpin diplomacy and external trade. The budget report prepared for this year’s annual session of the National People’s Congress announces a whopping increase of 12.2 per cent in the budget allocation for defence. This way, China’s defence budget will run to 808 billion yuan renminbi which amounts to almost $140 billion. This sum looks small compared with what the US spends on national defence. However, there are two considerations to be made. First, if one takes the criteria of purchasing power parity into consideration, the Chinese defence budget amounts to much, much more. Personnel cost are a large component of the US defence budget, while such costs in China are minimal. Secondly, it is common knowledge that costs that cover defence related issues are hidden in other ministerial budgets.
Of course, the US remains clearly in the lead when it comes to technologically advanced weapons and weapon systems. But China is catching up as is evident, for example in its space budget. Furthermore, as China’s industrial development is racing ahead, there will be many spin-offs from the civilian sector that can be used to improve defence equipment. China now, has the world’s second largest defence budget. It claims that this is a contribution to peace and stability in the world. Whether this will turn out to be true or not, the world might rather sooner than later come to know.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)