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China-US relations have hit a low point amid a trade war, spats over civil liberties and Taiwan, and conflicts over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as the US blaming Beijing for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The leaders will make their case for a bigger budget as the National People’s Congress starts on Friday.
They argue that the world’s largest standing army needs more resources to cope with volatile challenges at home and overseas, but top of the list is the growing confrontation with the US.
Beijing’s viewpoint is that the military threats are surfacing on its doorstep with US bombers running about 40 flights over contested areas of the South China and East China seas so far this year, or more than three times the number in the same period of 2019.
US Navy warships have sailed four “freedom of navigation operations” in the area in the same period, compared with eight in all of last year.
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Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator and former officer in the PLA said: “Beijing feels security threats posed by the US and other foreign countries are increasing, so the People’s Liberation Army wants a budget increase to support its military modernisation and combat-ready training.”
Military insiders say the PLA will want to match or exceed last year’s 7.5 percent growth rate – with one estimating a 9 percent jump – as tensions escalate on several fronts, including the perennial Taiwan friction.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates China’s defence spending at $261 billion, which is a little over a third that of the $732 billion of the US.
China themselves have announced defence spending of 1.18 trillion yuan (equal to $176 billion) at the NPC in March 2019, which is the world’s second largest.
Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the naval academy in Taiwan, said the suspicion between Beijing and Washington was the worst since the resumption of diplomatic relations in the 1970s, but he rated the chance of a military conflict as low.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the PLA and US military counterparts had communication channels.
Koh said: “Bilateral military ties (…) might not be always efficacious, but at least do serve as existing ‘pressure valves’ to forestall and potentially mitigate the risks that arise from growing tensions between Beijing and Washington.”
But President Xi Jinping ordered the PLA on January 2 to boost its combat capacity as relations worsened with Washington.
It was a repeat of Xi’s “be ready to win wars” order when he laid out his military expansion plan to the Communist Party’s national congress in 2017, and the message has not changed.
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The military leaders are also concerned about Taiwan, with the PLA saying two of its most challenging threats were pro-indepence forces in Taiwan and Tibetan/Xinjiang separatists.
The letter said that the army “will defend national unification at all costs”.
Ni Lexiong, a specialist in China’s naval strategy and former professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said under President Donald Trump, US arms sales to Taiwan – including 66 F-16 Viper fighter jets – gave the PLA additional bargaining chips in asking for more money.
Tensions over Taiwan have ratcheted up since Tsai Ing-wen became president in 2016, who was re-elected in a landslide in January on a platform of standing up to Beijing and defending Taiwan as a liberal democracy.
China’s military has been at the forefront of the countries fight against COVID-19.
The PLA provided doctors to treat patients, as well as soldiers and logistics for quarantine lockdowns, all additional expenditures that affect short and long term planning.
A military insider said the COVID-19 pandemic added a large, unexpected financial burden on the PLA.
They said: “Military leadership is still fighting with the decision makers of the NPC for a budget increase up to 9 per cent for the coming year, even though the global and domestic economic situations are worrying.”
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