Why Asia’s Men in Green are Celebrating

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It’s budget time in Asia, and the men in uniform (along with their numerous plainclothes colleagues) must be thrilled. In China, where the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress (NPC) has gathered for its annual confab in Beijing, the military was gifted a 12.7% increase in spending, bringing its yearly coffers to $91.5 billion. With Beijing’s recent military maneuvers already worrying regional neighbors embroiled in territorial disputes with China, the budget hike no doubt will give new ammunition to Asian nations angling to up their own defense spending. A survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that from 2000-2009, military expenditures in East Asia increased by 71%. Vietnam, which in recent weeks has been skirmishing with China over contested South China Sea waters, is busy acquiring submarines and long-range combat aircraft. China is clearly the target of Vietnam’s arms build-up.

Meanwhile, in Burma, where another rubber-stamp body has been convening in the secretive new capital Naypyidaw, the armed forces managed to secure nearly one-quarter of the national budget, or $2 billion, for its own purposes. Estimated to number around 450,000 troops, Burma’s military is, per capita, among the world’s largest. This month, its expanding air force is expected to obtain 20 MiG-29s from Russia, to the tune of $550 million. The 2011 budget outlay doesn’t even include a “special fund” controlled by military commander Than Shwe, which can be used to ensure “non-disintegration of the union” and other vague goals. Notably, the special fund is not subject to any limits on spending. In China, the military outlays were part of a larger—and distinctly worrisome—budgetary trend. Spending on internal security—a shadowy category that includes everything from police salaries and jail-building to funds dedicated to harassing political dissidents and beating up foreign journalists—is to jump by an alarming 13.8% this year. In fact, at $95 billion, China’s security spending now outpaces its official military expenditure. (However, many analysts believe that China’s on-paper military spending vastly underestimates true outlays.)

The internal-security budget hike underlines one major point: China’s top leaders are intent on expanding the country’s security apparatus as part of its oft-stated drive to promote stability. Indeed, “stability maintenance” has been a catchphrase throughout the NPC’s meeting, repeated alike by lowly delegates and high-ranking ministers.

The prodigious efforts of China’s security forces was on full display on March 6, when thousands of uniformed and undercover personnel blanketed Beijing and Shanghai. Last month, online activists called for Chinese citizens to stage a Jasmine Revolution-style protest in commercial areas of big cities every Sunday. By March 6, the third Sunday to be called into action, protesters were hardly in evidence. But the Chinese capital bristled with recruits of a massive “stability maintenance” project. Men in full SWAT gear patrolled the streets, women in red armbands wandered neighborhoods and police dogs paced the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Practically every other vehicle near one protest site, it seemed, was either a police van or a black sedan with tinted windows—well-known as the car of choice for China’s security machine.

Most menacing, though, were the hundreds, if not thousands, of undercover agents in Beijing posing as normal passersby, street sweepers or other municipal workers. The previous Sunday, when foreign journalists were attacked at one protest site, some supposed street cleaners used their brooms to beat the reporters, thereby blowing their disguises. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied that any police-instigated violence against foreigners took place.

As Asian countries spend, spend, spend on everything from weapons to wire-taps, what’s the cost? Well, in Burma, one look at the national budget makes it obvious. While 23.5% of the country’s cash is to be spent on the military, only 1.3% has been designated for health spending. In China the budgets are more generous for health and education spending; health outlays, for instance, are to increase by 16.3% this year, to $26 billion. Nevertheless, this is a country whose leaders, from Premier Wen Jiabao downward, have spoken with concern about a widening income gap and its potential to stir up social unrest. The men in green and their undercover colleagues may be happy about the new budget. But what about other Chinese? America often gets criticized for its immense defense spending, by far the biggest in the world. Is that the model Asia truly wants to emulate?