March 09, 2015

Why China's Growing Defense Budget Matters

By Elbridge Colby

So what does this tell us? Obviously nothing definitive, given that such an inherently indeterminate question as the nature and contours of China’s future behavior cannot be resolved in any meaningful or lasting way. Overall levels of defense spending are at best a highly imperfect and refracted method for ascertaining a nation’s intent. And even if we can divine from this announcement what Beijing means to do now the PRC might, after all, change its mind next year. And it does not mean that China’s intentions are necessarily malign or untoward. China claims, after all, to view its buildup as defensive and necessary to maintain existing correlations of forces between itself and its potential rivals. Furthermore, it is also possible that a good deal of previous increases in defense spending have been eaten up by inflation, and that Beijing simply seeks to stay ahead of rising prices and costs for goods and services.

There is undoubtedly truth to varying degrees in all these caveats. But this announcement is also not mere noise. Countries, including the savvy Chinese government, are well aware that overall defense spending levels and trajectories receive a great deal of attention and are seen as manifestations of intent. Witness the fervent debates about the defense top line budget in the United States or Japan’s highly-publicized slight increase in its defense budget after years of decline – and note in particular China’s loud drawing of attention to this latter fact. Indeed, it might be fair to say that there is no single more prominent indicator of a nation’s focus on and interest in its military than its overall defense expenditures and their growth (or decline) trajectory. It is thus reasonable to infer that China understood that continuing its levels of year-on-year growth even in light of the slowdown in the nation’s economic progress would be seen as significant and indeed menacing – and proceeded nonetheless. This surely tells us something about China’s intent.

Read the full op-ed at Real Clear Defense.

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