Last week started with the earthquake in Chile and a Tsunami warning for the Pacific Ocean. In any event, though more powerful than the one that hit Haiti in February, the casualty numbers were not as staggering.
There will be no all-star songs and high profile statements of support. The trouble with earthquakes as a topic for commentary is that there is not very much to say beyond lamenting at the damage and the obligatory musing about fault lines and tectonic plates.
The international media even told us how the quake had shortened our days by a few milliseconds. Judging by headlines like “Quake shortens Earth’s orbit”, one may have been forgiven for thinking that we had lost about 12 hours for the first time in history.
The truth was much more boring, we’d lost 1.26 millionth of a second and this had happened before, an example being the earthquake near Java on 26th December 2004.
More intriguing for this writer was the goings-on last Wednesday in the People’s Republic of China. At the annual session of the National People’s Congress, China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao announced that China’s military spending would increase in 2010 by 7.5%.
Hardly remarkable until one considers that last year’s military spending increased by 17.8% from that of 2008, which itself had increased by 14.6% from 2007.
The West, led by the Americans, has spent the last 15 years agonizing about China’s intentions with these military spending increases while China’s less vocal neighbours like Japan, South Korea, India and Russia mirrored these actions with increases of their own.
The US, which spends more than ten times what China does surely is not on the best of grounds to criticize the military spending habits of a large nation with more than a billion people in it.
The American worry is that, as it is bound by treaty to protecting Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, it sees this spending as potentially dangerous should a conflict break out in that area that might pit them against the largest army in the world with a military budget that has been expanding at an average of 10% over the last two decades.
Additionally, the Americans have estimated that since 96, the actual spending on the military has been between 25% - 100% what is publicly announced by Beijing. This year’s increase, though modest, will not necessarily calm Washington’s nerves.
The Chinese on the other hand see all of this as necessary, prior to Mao Tse Tung’s victory with his peasant army, China had spent a century at the mercy of foreign powers who exploited the weak regimes that were in place.
Most memorably with the Japanese 20 year occupation of the mainland from the 1920s that was remembered as being particularly brutal and exploitative.
The one lesson learnt was that China needed to be able to be strong to interact on equal terms with the rest of the world. Also with its restive provinces in the West such as Tibet and the Uighurs in the Xianjing Region, it sees the need of a strong military to enforce the will of the Central Government in these places.
So why the slowdown in spending? Is it due to the effects of last years global financial crisis? There is some credence in this, as observers have pointed out that a lot of 2009’s impressive 8.7% growth in GDP was fuelled by a mixture of the government’s stimulus package, inflation and massaged statistics in a global economy where demand for Chinese products was dropping while domestic spending stagnated.
Cost cutting on the military would make sense for any of these reasons. Or, it may be a cynical move to calm the fears of the West and its neighbours.
If the Americans are right about the large disparity between actual spending and the budget allocation for the military, China could in theory announce a modest increase and then spend twice that sum. Foreigners appeased, military buildup preserved.
Whatever the case, China presented a friendlier face last week. The question remains, would you trust a smiling dragon?
Oscar Kabbatende is a lawyer