BOSTON—China's announcement of slower growth in military spending has left a host of unanswered questions, U.S. analysts say.
Experts have been puzzling over a press statement at the National People's Congress (NPC) on March 4 that China plans to raise its military budget by only 7.5 percent, marking the first single-digit increase in years.
While the growth may be the smallest in two decades, scholars say it is hard to draw firm conclusions about China's intentions without details that the government has not disclosed.
"It is a black box," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, speaking of the defense budget. "The Chinese tell us very little."
Analysts have been trying to interpret the brief statement by NPC spokesman Li Zhaoxing that the outlay for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would rise by 37 billion yuan (U.S. $5.4 billion) to 532.1 billion yuan (U.S. $77.9 billion), far less than the 14.9-percent increase in 2009.
The new spending will support the military's reform and "improve its capability to deal with varied threats and complete diversified tasks," the official Xinhua news agency reported. Funds would also be used to raise PLA living standards, it said.
"They come out every year when they release these figures with a statement about what they're spending it on," Glaser said, but the information is sketchy.
"In that one sentence, we all try to read and dissect what's going on, but it's very, very difficult to tell," she said. "It's an arcane science trying to understand China's military budget."
Analysts in the dark
China's government does not provide breakdowns on spending for specific services, programs or arms procurement, making any conclusions difficult.
Periodic white papers on national defense give broad categories of spending—including personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment—but little detail. The result is that analysts are left largely in the dark.
China has rejected the conclusion of a Pentagon report to Congress last year that Beijing "significantly under-reports its military expenditures." The study estimated that total military spending was U.S. $105-150 billion in 2008.
In his statement, Li argued that China's defense budget is "comparatively low," accounting for 1.4 percent of GDP, while the share in the United States and other countries is higher.
Some reports have suggested that this year's smaller increase is meant to send a message that China's buildup poses no threat to the international community.
"I don't rule it out as a possibility, but I'm just not convinced," said Glaser. "It will be interesting to see in the years ahead whether this is a trend."
Calls to increase budget
The budget announcement follows strong statements by some PLA officers about China's ambitions. In February, a book by Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, a professor at National Defense University, urged China to challenge the United States and become "the top power."
The Reuters news agency also cited an unnamed PLA officer as saying that the defense budget should "send a defiant signal to Washington" over arms sales to Taiwan.
Some analysts have suggested that the statements were made to argue against slower military increases, said Glaser. But the budget could also be read as a government decision to curb the PLA.
Richard Bush, senior fellow for foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said the PLA statements have raised concerns.
"There have been a number of statements recently by various people in China. It's often hard to evaluate whether they reflect government views or views of the PLA," said Bush.
"It's also my sense that the Chinese government has understood the negative consequences of those statements in terms of the attitudes of other countries and is reining them in to some extent," he said.
Bush believes the main reason for the budget announcement was the rising concern in the United States and East Asia about the pace of China's buildup.
"China advocates a policy of peaceful development, and that was at odds with growth in the defense budget of almost 20 percent a year," he said.
Uncertainty over China's intentions and the insufficiency of information about its military make it hard to draw firm conclusions, said Bush, but it is unlikely to change many minds about whether Beijing poses a threat.
"I think people will read into this whatever they want to see. This adjustment will be held as confirming deeply held beliefs," he said.