China will boost defense spending by just 6.6% in 2020, the lowest rate in years as it battles an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, the government said Friday.
The figure is down from the double-digit percentage increases of just a few years ago that have given China the second biggest defense budget in the world behind the U.S.
The People’s Liberation Army, the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, is the world’s largest standing military and in recent years has added aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and stealth fighters to its arsenal, most of them produced domestically.
China says the increases in spending mostly go toward improving conditions for troops, while foreign critics say actual spending could be much higher because many items are not included in the official budget.
The spending will pay to expand China’s navy and acquire advanced aircraft and other weapons to help Beijing enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea and expand its military presence in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Defense outlays rose by 7.5% last year to 1.2 trillion yuan ($178 billion), while independent experts estimated real spending on the military exceeded $220 billion when off-budget expenses were added in.
The increase comes despite a 6.8% contraction in the world’s second-largest economy in the first quarter and a swelling government budget deficit required to help meet targets including creating 9 million new urban jobs.
That appears to demonstrate the vast importance the party places on the military as a symbol of China’s growing power and ability to defend what it identifies as its core national interests, something Xi Jinping, party leader, head of state and commander of the military, has made his highest priority.
It also helps demonstrate that the virus outbreak has not thrown off track Xi’s aim of establishing China as the primary regional power. The PLA was also portrayed as playing a pivotal role during the height of the coronavirus outbreak by dispatching medics and building field hospitals, something recognized in Premier Li Keqiang’s report Friday to the opening session of the ceremonial parliament, the National People’s Congress.
“The people’s armed forces demonstrated fine conduct by reacting swiftly to the Party’s commands and shouldering heavy responsibilities in COVID-19 control,” Li said.
The government will strengthen support in logistics and equipment and “promote innovative development of defense-related science and technology,” while ensuring that “unity between the military and the government and between the military and the people “remains rock solid,” the premier said.