By Liu Xuanlun
BEIJING - China set its 2020 defence budget growth target at 6.6 percent, resulting in a draft budget of 1.268 trillion yuan ($178.2 billion), lower than the 7.5 percent growth in 2019.
The figure was made public on Friday in a draft budget report to be submitted to the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC).
This also marks the lowest defence budget growth rate in recent years.
China's defence budget for 2019 was 1.19 trillion yuan, up 7.5 percent from 2018. China has maintained single-digit growth in its annual defence budget since 2016.
Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Friday that it is very normal that compared to last year's 7.5 percent growth rate, this year's 6.6 percent is not a significant slowdown considering the effect brought by the pandemic.
China is facing national security threats, including those taking place very nearby to China and in non-traditional security fields. Compared to these threats, China's military expenditure was far from enough, Song said.
Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst, told the Global Times on Friday that the increased defense budget can ensure the Chinese military's major programs and key spending fields are not affected by the pandemic and will remain on schedule.
The decreased growth rate is partially decided by China's actual situation, and the pandemic has had an impact on economic growth in all countries, Wei noted.
A number of military analysts previously predicted a greater slowdown of defense budget growth to approximately three percent, but ended up at 6.6 percent. This is likely due to rosier prospects for China's economy in the second half of the year than expected, indicating the economic development can support a larger military budget growth, analysts said.
China has scrapped a numerical economic growth target this year for the first time in decades. But He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, said at the NPC session on Friday that the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on China's economy is significant but short-term and temporary.
Another reason could lie in China's flexible finance system, as budgets for other fields that are not as important as national defense and hospitality costs can be allocated to the military budget, analysts said, noting the national defense demand is running high at the moment.
China has kept its military expenditure/GDP ratio to under 2 percent in the past three decades, while other major countries like the US have been keeping this ratio to 3 to 4 percent in recent years.
With China's economic volume growing, corresponding military strength is needed to protect it. Back when China's economy skyrocketed at the beginning of reform and opening-up, military expenditure growth remained slow. Increasing the defense budget is only making up for what was lost back then, analysts pointed out.
Song said the defence budget growth rate of 6.6 percent for 2020 is not a high figure at all even under the COVID-19 pandemic.
China's defence expenditure is categorized by application, namely personnel expenses, training maintenance fees and equipment spending, according to China's Ministry of National Defence.
The Chinese military needs to procure a huge amount of expensive, advanced weapons and equipment to replace its vast arsenal of outdated ones; it is also boosting the intensity and extent of training; as the CPI increases, benefits of soldiers and officers also need to improve, Song pointed out.
China is reportedly building a third and more advanced aircraft carrier and developing a long-range strategic bomber, rumored as the H-20. The number of modern weapons like the J-20 fighter jet and Type 055 large destroyer is still running short compared to the potentially hostile F-35 fighter jet and advanced warships of the US and its allies near China.
China has not fought a war in decades and relies heavily on training and exercises to sharpen and maintain combat readiness, and the expenses of consumables like munitions and fuel require money.
The 6.6 percent growth rate of this year alone cannot solve China's long-term problem of the lack of military funding, but it is a process of gradual improvement, Song said.
The continued growth in the Chinese military budget comes at a time when the US is becoming increasingly aggressive and has conducted repeated military provocations against China in regions like the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits.
Both regions have become flashpoints, which military observers say face the risk of escalating into actual military conflicts. The US has been sending warships and warplanes to waters and airspace near China more frequently, with some trespassing into Chinese territories. China has also been conducting patrols and exercises to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
China has huge national defense demands, which is a crucial factor in the military budget, a Chinese military expert who asked not to be named told the Global Times on Friday.
In the post-pandemic period, China faces more military threats from other countries, mainly the US. With Taiwan secessionists becoming more and more rampant, reunification by force with the island of Taiwan is always on the table, the expert said, noting that in this situation, increasing the defence budget must not stop.
China takes the development of the economy and the demands of national defence into consideration when deciding on the appropriate scale and composition of defence expenditure, according to the national defense white paper issued by the State Council Information Office in July 2019.
The 2020 defence budget should be seen as reasonable and appropriate, analysts said.
Not a threat
China's military budget increase has been a hot topic for some Western officials and media to hype the "China threat" theory. An increase this year against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic could raise this rhetoric again, observers said.
"People should ask first, which countries are threatening China's national security in the first place? They should ask the US, they should ask India, and some other neighbouring countries and regions," Song said.
China has contained the COVID-19 epidemic well, and its military contributed a lot and has demonstrated its capabilities. More spending will be put to strengthen the Chinese military's capability in epidemic control and prevention as well as disaster relief, Song noted.
Whether a country poses a military threat to others or not is decided by its diplomatic and national defence policies and not by how much it increases its defence budget, Chinese officials and military experts said in previous years.
China has only a limited defence budget, and it is used for safeguarding the country's sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity. This will not pose a threat to other countries, they said.
According to a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in April, the US drives global military expenditure growth, spending a whopping $732 billion on the sector in 2019, about four times higher than China's official figure.
In response to a question saying China's military spending was not transparent, Zhang Yesui, spokesperson for the third session of the 13th National People's Congress, said at a press conference on Thursday that China has been submitting reports on its military expenditures to the United Nations every year since 2007.
"From where the money comes from to how the money is used, everything is accounted for," Zhang said, noting there is no such thing as "hidden military spending."