China’s Defense Budget: An Unchecked Primer to China’s Defense Industrial Base
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China’s Defense Budget: An Unchecked Primer to China’s Defense Industrial Base

By Dr. Amrita Jash

Research Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, India

China’s Defense Budget: An Unchecked Primer to China’s Defense Industrial Base

In 2021, China issued a draft defense budget of 1.35 trillion yuan (US$ 209 billion), with a hike of 6.8 percent from 2020. To note, this single-digit growth rate is consecutively sixth in a row as previous estimates were 7.6 percent in 2016, 7 percent in 2017, 8.1 percent in 2018, 7.5 percent in 2019, 6.6 percent in 2020 against 10.1 percent in 2015.[1] However, unlike the past hikes, the 6.8 percent increase in 2021 is a significant ‘hike’. That is, though a single-digit increase but what makes the numbers significant is the fact that the increased budget is complemented by the worst economic downfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It only suggests that China’s commitment towards military modernization remains uncompromised despite the circumstances.

Unlike other defense budgets, China’s military expenditure is often a topic of debate. As noted, since its economic rise, China’s defense spending has exhibited an ascending trend- ranking second only to the US in defense spending. This automatically makes China’s budget way higher than that of its regional neighbors, such as India and Japan- with which it has territorial and maritime disputes. With defense spending related to the military balance, China’s budget calls for speculation. Wherein, the estimated ‘numbers’ are not just a point of query, but also a cause of worry.

Here, the cause of concern is the ‘skepticism’ attached to the numbers. When it comes to China, the key question is: How accurate is the ‘official’ budget? This query is driven by the varying estimates attached to China’s official budget to that of estimates provided by other agencies such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). To cite an example, in 2017 the Chinese government officially estimated the defense budget at 1.044 trillion yuan (US$ 151.4 billion) and its 2016 defense budget at 955 billion yuan (US$ 143.7 billion); which SIPRI estimated to be US$ 228 billion (2017) and US$ 216 billion (2016); while the DoD estimated the 2016 defense budget at more than US$ 180 billion, and the IISS estimated it at US$ 197 billion.[2] Thus, the varied numbers bring into perspective the issue of ‘transparency’ over China’s defense spending.

At the heart of the spending lies the intention of modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that tops the Communist Party’s agenda. Wherein, the goal as set by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 19th Party Congress aims at two key objectives: to complete national defense and military modernization of the PLA by 2035 and to transform the PLA into a world-class military by mid-century. Owing to this, one of the key targets of the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) is to “make major strides in the modernization of national defense and the armed forces”. This commitment further justifies the uncompromised defense budget and more specifically, suggests that China’s military goals remain to be on ‘schedule’ even under the pandemic. Notwithstanding, the goal of ‘mechanization by 2020’ seems to be still in progress. However, Beijing perceives it to be reasonable, as NPC Spokesperson Zhang Yesui suggests that:

“Maintaining a proper and steady increase in defense spending is needed to safeguard our sovereignty and development interests, fulfill China’s international responsibility and obligations, and promote the transformation of the Chinese military with Chinese characteristics”.[3]

Given China’s undeterred commitment, it becomes imperative to assess: What constitutes China’s defense spending? Rather, what is not accounted for in China’s defense spending?

As outlined in China’s Defence White Papers, the defense spending is categorized by application under three areas— personnel expenses, training and sustainment, and equipment spending. Wherein, of the three categories, it is largely found that China is most transparent about the first category and least transparent about the third category of defense spending.[4] To say so, as very little is known about the cost of weapons and equipment produced by the Chinese defense industry or the amount of money allocated to weapons search and development.[5] This very lacuna makes it imperative to explore China’s defense industry. Here, the logic is driven by two interlinked factors: First, an increased defense spending is a critical indicator of China’s growing defense industrial base. And second, a defense industrial base is a prerequisite for China given its aspirations to become a ‘world-class’ military. In view of this, an upward swing in China’s defense expenditure is exemplified by the change in China’s status from being an importer of arms to that being ranked as a top global arms exporter. What is noteworthy is that China has graduated to become the world’s second-largest arms producer. Accounting for 5.5 percent of the total arms sales, China ranks fifth in the global profile of arms exporter. This very change in China’s status calls for a probe into China’s Defence Industrial Base.

China’s defense industry is driven by the country’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). As per SIPRI’s 2020 Top 100, the four Chinese companies that made to the Top 20 included- Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), China North Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO), China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), and China South Industries Group Corporation (CSGC) with a combined arms sales of US$ 54.1 billion.[6] What is noteworthy is that the Chinese companies did not even figure in SIPRI’s past listing even a decade back. For instance, in SIPRI’s 2012 Year Book, the Top 20 only comprised companies mainly from- US, UK, France, and Russia. Here, the absence of Chinese companies can be attributed to the lack of transparency, inadequate data as well as unreliable estimates that resulted in oversight of China’s defense industrial base. This was also compounded by the longstanding assumption based on 'quality' that Chinese weapons and weapon systems as redundant and incompetent against other major players such as the US, Russia, and others. If that be the case, the 2020 SIPRI estimates are alarming. An indicator of the fact that China’s defense industry has graduated from being ‘nowhere’ to that of joining the Top 20 league- hence, cannot be treated in oblivion.

The other distinct aspect of China’s defense industry is that unlike the American defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin that produce weapons and weapon systems in all domains, the Chinese SOEs are categorical in their expertise and defense production. Unlike a wide-spectrum, China’s arms production is mainly in five key sectors: aerospace, electronics, land systems, nuclear, and shipbuilding. In these specific domains, the SOEs that operate are listed below.

Sl No.Chinese Companies & InstituteKey Area(s) of Production
1Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC)Aircraft
2Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC)
3China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC)Missile and space systems
4China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC)
5China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC)Electronics such as radars, military communication systems, and others
6China North Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO)Land Systems


7China South Industries Group Corporation (CSGC)
8China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC)
9China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP)Nuclear Weapons
10China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC)

Source: Author

Undeniably, it is the SOEs that are paving the path for Beijing as a competitor in global arms export- thus, the pillar of China’s defense industrial base. This when linked to China’s military spending brings forth the essence of China’s increasing military capabilities and undeterred military intentions. Wherein, the defense industrial base aims to match the military capabilities- a parameter to take note of. That is, the scaling numbers of China’s defense spending are symptomatic of its growing defense industrial base. Thus, cannot afford an oversight, neither from India in particular, and the world at large.

This article was first published on the official website of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, India

End Notes:

[1] Tabulated by the author from the official Chinese defense spending estimates.

[2] Dong Ryul Lee (2019), “The Prospect and Trend of Military Spending and Strategy in Rising China”, EAI Working Paper, 8 January 2019, pp. 1-2,, accessed online 15 April 2021.

[3] Liu Xuanzun (2021), “China hikes defense budget by 6.8 % in 2021, faster than 6.6% growth last year”, Global Times, 5 March 2021,, accessed online 15 April 2021.

[4]Adam P. Liff and Andrew S. Erickson (2013), “Demystifying China’s Defence Spending: Less Mysterious in the Aggregate”, The China Quarterly, Vol. 216, p. 815.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2020), “New SIPRI data reveals scale of Chinese arms industry”, 27 January 2020,, accessed online 17 April 2021.

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