China plans to boost defense spending by 12 percent

The Chinese government announced Wednesday that their defense budget will increase by 12.2 percent, nearly 808 billion yuan, for the 2014 fiscal year.

In U.S. dollars, China will be boosting its defense budget from $117 billion to approximately $132 billion, the biggest military increase in the last three years, Reuters reports. The military expansion includes investments in computer software technology and a boost in spending for their navy, one capable of operating in international waters.

While the White House budget for 2015 plans to decrease defense spending, including a reduction of the U.S. Army to to pre-World War II levels, the proposed U.S. defense budget is $496 billion, about 5 times the size of the Chinese.

Premier Li Keqiang, China’s head of government, spoke about the defense budget increases at the opening of China’s annual session of the National People’s Congress on Wednesday. Keqiang said China would “strengthen research on national defense and the development of new and high technology weapons and equipment” and “enhance border, coastal and air defenses.”

Chinese increases in defense spending come as new tensions have emerged in East Asia. The Chinese declared an air defense zone that overlaps with Japanese-claimed airspace and has sent its navy into the South China Sea for precious oil and gas claims, much to the consternation of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

In December, Japan announced a defense build-up of its own to protect its interests against a more expansive China.

“It fits into a broader pattern that we’re seeing,” said Chris Johnson, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think they’re still biding their time but they’re not hiding their strength any more.”

China observers, such as Johnson, also a former China analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, point out that China has rapidly increased its defense spending for the past two decades.

In part, this is due to the perception that China needs to strengthen itself if the U.S. is to “pivot” toward Asia. The foreign policy decision, announced by President Obama in 2011, is a maneuver that the Chinese believe involves creating alliances that check Chinese power, Johnson told the NewsHour.

Obama will visit the region on a multi-country Asian tour in April.