BEIJING -- China announced yesterday that it will increase military spending at a sharply higher rate this year, budgeting a rise of nearly 18 percent, and a senior US official immediately called for clarity on the planned expenditures.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said at a news conference at the end of his maiden visit to Beijing in his new post that the Bush administration is dissatisfied with China's unwillingness to share such information. "We think it's important in our dialogue that we understand what China's plans and intentions are," he said.
The government's military budget announcement and Negroponte's swift appeal for more transparency highlighted a particularly uneasy point in what has become a broad, close, and increasingly important US-China relationship.
Negroponte has the lead role in managing that relationship, a mission he emphasized by calling on Chinese officials so soon after his Feb. 13 swearing-in. Apparently by coincidence, the Chinese government chose the same moment to announce that its declared military expenditures for 2007 will amount to $44.94 billion, an increase of 17.8 percent.
According to Pentagon estimates, that declared total represents about a third of actual military spending if equipment purchases are taken into account. But even that would amount to only a fraction of the US military budget, which rose to about $623 billion for fiscal 2008.
China has been steadily increasing military expenditures for more than a decade, seeking to recover from a long lag compared with other major powers. But the figure for 2007 drew attention because it represents the biggest jump in several years.
In reaction to the spending climb and resulting improvements in China's forces, the United States has regularly urged China to open its ultrasecretive military to more scrutiny and share its strategic outlook with Washington to avoid misunderstandings in the region. The outgoing US Pacific Command chief, Admiral William Fallon, was particularly active in seeking to organize more contacts between the two military hierarchies.
Negroponte said that he, too, will push for closer connections. "It's not so much the budget and the increases as it is understanding these things through dialogue and contacts," he said.
A spokesman for the National People's Congress, set to open its annual session today, said military expenditures were rising to cover the cost of better training and higher salaries in the People's Liberation Army and benefits for about 200,000 soldiers shed from the ranks over the past several years. Reducing the lower ranks and improving technological training for remaining troops have been major parts of the long-range military improvement program.
The spokesman, Jiang Enzhu, said China's military expenditures do not represent a threat to other countries because President Hu Jintao's government has vowed to use the military only in "defensive operations." He added, "China is committed to following the path of peaceful development, and it has adopted a defensive posture."
But the official New China News Agency quoted the head of the military's General Logistics Department, Liao Xilong, as saying the extra money also would go toward improving China's ability to wage high-tech warfare, defend its information systems against jamming, and coordinate among land, air, and sea forces.
Underlying China's determination to build a more modern military -- and also the US call for transparency -- is the risk of conflict over Taiwan, which sits 100 miles off the mainland.
The island has been self-ruled since Nationalist forces fled there in 1949 as Mao Zedong's Communist troops took power. But in Beijing's eyes it remains a Chinese province that must at some point return to the fold, even by force.
Negroponte said Chinese officials raised with him the Bush administration's recent decision to sell Taiwan about 400 missiles, charging that the $421 million deal violated US commitments to a one-China policy. In response, Negroponte said, he emphasized Washington's adherence to the one-China principle but reminded them of legislation mandating US help for Taiwan's defense.