Chinese military's loyalty rewarded Officials continue funding increases

March 17, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- China's leaders -- well aware of the Maoist dictum that political power stems from the barrel of a gun -- continue to buy the loyalty of the army that crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

For the fourth successive year, the military has been handed a sizable budget increase, according to a draft of China's 1993 central government budget released yesterday.

The military funding increases have been awarded during a period of growing budget deficits and have outstripped those for education, science and health programs. The increases in the 1990s follow relatively lean military budgets in the 1980s.

The People's Liberation Army has been using the additional money to carry out a wide-scale modernization drive, one given impetus by the massive display of high-tech weaponry by the United States in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

China has been buying long-range fighter jets from Russia and beefing up its naval forces, thereby expanding its capacity to project its military power beyond its borders.

This has alarmed some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, who are using the Chinese buildup as an excuse for their own buildup.

These days, the only region that China directly threatens is Taiwan, the island controlled by the Chinese Nationalists since the 1949 Communist revolution. China still refuses to reject the possible use of force to retake the island.

But some Southeast Asian nations are particularly worried that China will use force to assert its claims to islands in the South and East China seas, atolls potentially rich in oil and gas and claimed by three other nations and Taiwan.

Some foreign analysts disagree. "China's threat to Southeast Asia is hyped," says a Western diplomat here, who believes it may be a decade before China could sustain a major offensive in that region.

Publicly, China says that its military buildup is purely defensive and that it wants the disputes shelved in favor of a multinational ++ effort to exploit the islands' resources.

But more military might, at the minimum, represents more diplomatic leverage.

This year's defense budget calls for expenditures of about $7.5 billion, or roughly 9 percent of the total national budget. Per capita defense spending is only about $6, a minuscule figure compared to those of the world's major powers.

But the defense spending officially outlined in the national budget may represent less than half the resources available to the PLA.

For example, another $7.7 billion in the national budget falls under the heading of unspecified administrative expenses for "building up the national strength."

The PLA also is involved in a wide range of industrial and commercial pursuits. It grows its own food, makes thousands of types of consumer goods, runs luxury hotels, deals in real estate and trades in currencies.

Its thousands of defense plants converted to civilian production rack up annual sales worth at least several billion dollars, according to Chinese and Western reports. China's arms sales, though declining, are believed to have brought in at least another $600 million last year.

This year's military budget increase is 12.4 percent, about the same as the annual increases that the PLA has been receiving since after the 1989 massacre.

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