15 December 2013

Just Out in December 2013 China Quarterly: “Demystifying China’s Defence Spending: Less Mysterious in the Aggregate”

Adam P. Liff and Andrew S. Erickson, “Demystifying China’s Defence Spending: Less Mysterious in the Aggregate,” The China Quarterly 216 (December 2013): 805-30. (lead article)

Click here to read the full text version.


China’s limited transparency concerning its defence spending harms strategic trust, but foreign analysts often lose sight of important realities. Specific details remain unclear, but China’s defence spending overall is no mystery – it supports PLA modernization and personnel development as well as its announced objectives of securing China’s homeland and asserting control over contested territorial and maritime claims, with a focus on the Near Seas (the Yellow, East, and South China seas). This article offers greater context and a wider perspective for Chinese and Western discussions of China’s rise and its concomitant military build-up, through a nuanced and comprehensive assessment of its defence spending and military transparency.

Keywords: China; defence spending; military budget; rising powers; People’s Liberation Army; PLA

Whatever the exact size of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) actual defence spending, it is now the world’s second largest. Its rapid increase over the past two decades is a development of considerable significance to the world, yet it remains poorly understood. Many analysts have a tendency to focus on the most unsettling aspects of both China’s military strategic and budgetary opacity while overlooking the context in which relevant policy choices are made. The result is often an over-simplistic narrative about China’s rise and long-term strategic intentions. A salient example of the problematic, decontextualized discourse about China’s defence spending is then-US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld’s charge at the June 2005 Shangri-La Dialogue: “Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment [in defence]? Why these continuing large and expanded arms purchases? Why these continued deployments?”1

As this article will demonstrate, however undesirable to foreign observers the PRC’s military build-up may be, the trajectory of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is increasingly amenable to external analysis: it is focused primarily on explicitly identified contingencies and is not particularly surprising. To be clear: to say that China’s military trajectory is not as mysterious as is commonly believed is not to say that the PLA’s growing capabilities should not be an issue of concern to other states or that China’s military has achieved a sufficient level of transparency; nor is it to deny that some of China’s recent rhetoric and behaviour toward its neighbours in East Asia has had a deleterious effect on regional stab- ility. Nevertheless, inferences about China’s strategic intentions and judgments about the appropriate policy response should be based on a full consideration of the available data, rather than focused only on the concerns raised by what some might term the “known unknowns” about China’s military trajectory.2

To be sure, remaining uncertainties are significant. The lack of reliable open- source data, and infeasibility of confirming the veracity of those data that are available, hinders efforts to determine total military spending figures and intra-PLA spending priorities and capabilities. Given this reality, such figures are best estimated deductively from doctrine and inductively via an examination of procurement patterns of specific platforms and weapons systems. Specific estimation is extraordinarily complex and depends on data typically unavailable to scholars.3 For these reasons, linkage of funding estimates to specific capabilities is beyond the scope of the present study.4 … … ..

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2013

(Online publication March 25, 2013)


Email: apl@princeton.edu (corresponding author)

Adam P. Liff is a doctoral candidate in Princeton University’s department of politics. He is also a Minerva Scholar affiliated with the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC).

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor in the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). He is also an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.


Adam Liff thanks the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation for generous research travel support. The authors thank Richard Bitzinger, Dennis Blasko, Felix Boecking, Amy Chang, Patrick Chovanec, Thomas Christensen, Roger Cliff, Gabriel Collins, Abraham Denmark, Arthur Ding, M. Taylor Fravel, Nan Li, Darren Lim, James Mulvenon, Barry Naughton, William Norris, Michael O’Hanlon, Suzanne Patrick, Robert Ross, Sean Sullivan, one anonymous American expert and two anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts. They owe special thanks to Yunzhuang Zhang and Nancy Hearst for suggesting useful Chinese-language sources. Unless explicitly cited otherwise, the views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors.


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