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An arsenal called deception

The 2010 Chinese military budget announced recently seems to be an effectuation of Deng’s advice, “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership”, writes Thomas Mathew.

india Updated: Mar 30, 2010 23:00 IST

In the 1990s, Deng Xiaoping, China’s pragmatic leader who is credited with sowing the seeds of the policies that have made China what it is today, outlined the ‘24 Character Strategy’ and said: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership”. In plain words, it was a homily on the art of deception.

The 2010 Chinese military budget announced recently seems to be an effectuation of Deng’s advice. Li Zhaoxing, the former foreign minister and currently the spokesperson for the annual session of the Parliament of China, the National People’s Congress (NPC), delivered the spin. He announced that China’s budget is ‘comparatively low’ for a nation of the size and territory of China. He went on to add that in 2010, China’s defence budget only grew by half of what it did in 2009. Some newspapers carrying the story commented that the military budget of 532.115 billion yuan (nearly $78 billion) was the lowest increase in the last two decades.

But the numbers don’t add up. The China Daily, quoting Xinhua, the official Chinese media organisation had announced in 2009 that the Chinese defence budget would be 480.686 billion yuan (nearly $70 billion), an increase of 14.9 per cent over the previous year. The same official source claimed that the budget for 2010 has increased by only 7.5 per cent over the previous year. But when a number rises from 480.686 to 532.115, it is a 10.7 per cent increase. If on the other hand, 532.115 is to represent a 7.5 per cent increase, then it should have risen from a base of 495.115. Therefore, it can be either that the 2009 budget grew 18.4 per cent over the last year or it rose 10.7 per cent in 2010.

So, are the figures meant to deceive nations already wary of the huge Chinese military build-up? Official Chinese defence budgets in any case are notorious for their lack of transparency. Since 2002 China has been the largest importer of weapons and nations are left befuddled by the import of Chinese professions concerning its ‘peaceful rise’. Therefore, Chinese military budgets could be concealing more than they reveal.

The game is obviously to ‘hide’ its growing military strength. Even if the Chinese official figures are presumed to be correct, countries like India have reasons to worry. Chinese defence budgets have traversed a sharp upward trajectory in the last two decades. In 2000, China, from being the seventh largest military spender, emerged as the second largest spender.

India needs to be vigilant. The spectacular growth in Chinese military and economic power cannot but be a matter of grave concern to India. Both nations have several outstanding border issues that China doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to settle. It has made the audacious demand that Indian leaders should refrain from visiting parts of Arunachal Pradesh staking claim to the state. Beijing has also successfully blocked international financial institutions from extending development assistance to a sovereign part of India. These are but a few instances. Its continuing policy of arming Pakistan against India is evidence of Chinese animus against India.

However, India’s defence budgets have, on the other hand, not kept pace with its growing security imperatives. Its 2010 defence budget of Rs 147,344 crore (around $31.1 billion) represents a measly year over year growth of 3.98 per cent, barely enough to maintain the previous year’s level of expenditure after adjusting for inflation.

Compare it with China’s budget, which has been estimated to be 2-3 times its official budget. This would make China’s budget dwarf Indian military spending by nearly 5 to 7.3 times. The present level of India’s defence expenditure is, therefore, inadequate to address the security challenges it could face even in the immediate future.

Critics, however, say that there is little purpose in increasing the defence budget when, every year, money is surrendered. The reality, however, is that Ministry of Defence (MoD) is not the only ministry that is culpable of not spending its allocations. The compelling need of the hour is to overhaul the acquisition structure in MoD and spend more on defence, like nations do when faced with security threats.

India, of course, doesn’t have any imperial intent but it surely must be ready to counter any nation preparing to employ it.

Thomas Mathew is Deputy Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 30, 2010 22:53 IST