Beijing breaks precedent by not revealing the total budget to take some of the sting out of the sensitive figure at home and abroad, observers say.
For the first time in decades, Beijing has not revealed its defence spending total for the year despite a stated commitment to transparency in military outlays.
The decision is seen as an attempt to downplay the sensitive budget figure, which has not only raised concerns in the international community but also among military personnel who want spending to rise at a faster rate.
The total military budget has long been included in the Ministry of Finance’s report released at the start of the National People’s Congress. But the figure was omitted in the 2017 budget report released on Sunday. The social security budget for 2017 was also missing.
Nevertheless, in his government work report tabled to the NPC on Sunday, Premier Li Keqiang pledged more support for the military.
“Beijing will continue to deepen military reforms while upholding the Communist Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces,” Li said.
The comment came a day after NPC spokeswoman Fu Ying said the defence budget would be increased by around 7 per cent this year, down from 7.6 per cent growth last year and the slowest annual rate since 2000.
But that increase would push national military spending to over 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.25 trillion) for the first time, up from the 954 billion yuan set aside in 2016.
Some military personnel attending the NPC said Major General Chen Zhou, a researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, briefed them on the budget at a closed door session on Saturday.
“Chen Zhou briefed us last night … on how the defence budget would be used and how much it is,” Major General Li Fengshan, an NPC deputy from the Central Military Commission’s discipline inspection commission, said.
Other delegates confirmed they had been given a document on the defence budget, but it was for restricted circulation.
Speaking to state media on Saturday, Chen insisted that China’s defence spending was transparent.
Concerns about how the country’s defence budget is spent have been mounting, especially with China’s growing military might and assertive territorial claims. Critics say the real outlays might be much higher than the official figure.
Zhang Yunling, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the rare move to withhold the figure was to “play down the sensitivity” of the numbers.
“The government apparently wants to do this because the outside world is very concerned about the growth rate of [China’s] military spending,” Zhang said.
Military analysts said slower growth in spending would upset domestic hawks keen on a stronger armed forces, but would put neighbours involved in bitter territorial disputes more at ease.
“The central government didn’t detail the defence budget because it’s likely that this year’s growth rate is even lower than last year’s, and that will make domestic hawks and populists very unhappy,” a retired senior colonel said. “But the moderate 7 per cent will allow Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines to relax.”
In contrast, the administration of new US President Donald Trump proposed a near 10 per cent increase in its defence budget last month. During his campaign, Trump pledged to upgrade the US military’s hardware and personnel, including building 80 advanced warships and at least 100 more combat aircraft.
Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said the moderate growth rate indicated that Beijing would focus on domestic economic development, rather than engage in an arms race with the US.
By Minnie Chan
Additional reporting by Jane Cai and Zhuang Pinghui, Jun Mai
South China Morning Post