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Great leap sideways

The tenth Chinese National People?s Congress (NPC) has been remarkable for several reasons.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2006 02:25 IST
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The tenth Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) has been remarkable for several reasons. The NPC and its sister advisory organisation, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, are annual events where delegates of the Communist Party and government and military officials powwow endlessly about the future of China. But this time round, the opening of the 3,000-member Parliament reportedly began with a surprising announcement by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that China would literally spend its way out of poverty. For that’s what the construction of a “socialist countryside”, as Mr Wen put it, would entail, if China were to resolve its current rural crisis. Even then it’s doubtful if the handouts that Mr Wen promises to beleaguered farmers in the form of reduced healthcare costs and agricultural taxes and easier access to credit can bridge the huge developmental differences between town and country. For the statistics give little room for optimism.

Below the skyscrapers of Shanghai and Beijing, more than 80 million people still live in poverty, with an average city-farm income ratio of 6:1. Seen against this, Beijing’s decision to hike military spending by nearly 15 per cent is too extravagant even by Chinese standards. To maintain and modernise the biggest armed forces in the world, China has been lavishing double-digit increases in its defence budget since the early Nineties. The primary focus obviously is on acquiring a capability that could prevail in a short-duration conflict with Taiwan, and act as an anti-access force to deter US intervention.

The huge military spending also reflects a broader agenda: attaining military dominance in Asia-Pacific by replacing US hegemony in the region. All this has subtly swung the balance of power in Asia and stoked new regional tensions like the Sino-Japanese political and territorial disputes. The US may have decided to manage, rather than challenge, China’s rising economic and political profile, going by Washington’s keenness to cultivate other allies in the region. Growing India-US ties are probably an example of this.