China boosts defense spending as regional disputes heat up

A conductor leads the military band as they perform a national anthem during the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on March 5, 2024. (AP)
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Updated 05 March 2024
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China boosts defense spending as regional disputes heat up

  • China has the world’s second-largest defense budget behind the United States
  • China’s military spending makes up 1.6 percent of GDP, far less than United States 

China announced Tuesday it would boost its defense spending in 2024, as hostility over Taiwan and in the South China Sea grows.

The 7.2 percent increase, identical to last year’s figure, was announced at the start of the annual meeting of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).

China will spend 1.665 trillion yuan ($231.4 billion) on defense in 2024, according to the budget report that lays out the government’s financial plans for the year ahead.

China has the world’s second-largest defense budget behind the United States, even though the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) surpasses the US military by number of personnel.

Still, China’s military spend is around three times smaller than Washington’s in recent years.

The world’s second-largest economy will maintain “reasonable growth” in its defense budget to “safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests,” NPC spokesman Lou Qinjian said Monday.

'Viewed with suspicion'




Soldiers of People's Liberation Army (PLA) march in formation during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China, on October 1, 2019. (REUTERS)

The country’s expenditure on its armed forces has been on the rise for decades, broadly in line with economic growth.

China’s military spending makes up 1.6 percent of its GDP, far less than the United States or Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

But its defense expansion is viewed with suspicion by Washington, as well as other powers in the region including Japan, with which Beijing has a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

China has also increasingly flexed its muscles in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely despite an international arbitration ruling that declared its stance baseless.

China’s boost in spending is also a cause for concern for self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing says is part of its territory to be claimed by force if necessary.

As the NPC kicked off on Tuesday, the government work report said China would again “resolutely oppose separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’” in 2024.

'Biggest challenge to NATO'

China also says it is worried about cooperation between its regional rivals and the United States, as well as NATO.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in January that China was the “biggest long term challenge NATO Allies face.”

“We see them in Africa, we see them in the Arctic, we see them trying to control our critical infrastructure,” he added.

China made “a number of significant acquisitions, including a substantial increase in number of nuclear warheads” last year, James Char, an expert on the Chinese army at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, told AFP.

According to Sipri, Beijing had 410 nuclear warheads in 2023, an increase of 60 from the year before.

However, that still significantly lags behind Washington’s 3,708 and Moscow’s 4,489.

Moreover, “recent military corruption scandals raise doubts about the effectiveness of (Beijing’s) missile force and overall military professionalism,” said Adam Ni, editor of China Neican, a newsletter on Chinese current affairs.

Over the course of the last year there has been a leadership overhaul of China’s Rocket Force — the army unit that oversees its nuclear arsenal — following media reports of a graft probe involving its former chief.

Among a slew of other dismissals, former defense minister Li Shangfu was sacked without explanation last October after just a few months in the job.

'US still top dog'

Corruption needs to be tackled if President Xi Jinping’s “goal of displacing the US armed forces as the world’s pre-eminent military power” is to be realized, said NTU’s Char.

For the time being, Washington remains firmly in the top spot.

The United States has the world’s highest military spending, according to Sipri — standing at $877 billion in 2022, the latest figures available.

China comes second, followed by Russia and India.

The United States also has “global presence and alliance networks, which China cannot replicate in the short term,” said Neican’s Ni.

Washington has hundreds of military bases abroad, while Beijing has just one, in Djibouti.

“Given the PLA’s shortcomings — — particularly in combined arms and joint operations -— it stands to reason that Beijing possesses neither the wherewithal nor the desire to initiate conflict against Washington or launch an invasion across the Taiwan Strait,” said Char.

“A lingering concern, however, is that aggressive interactions between the PLA and other militaries in the region carry the potential to go awry and escalate into a full-blown conflict.”


UK’s Sunak, Starmer face televised grilling by unhappy voters

Updated 4 sec ago
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UK’s Sunak, Starmer face televised grilling by unhappy voters

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer were grilled by voters at a televised event on Wednesday, with both challenged over past decisions, pledges and how they would fund policies if they won a July 4 election.

At their last meeting in television studios before the poll, the two men took turns to face an interviewer and then an audience, whose questions and responses underscored the everyday struggles of many in Britain and the mistrust of politicians.

With just over three weeks until an election opinion polls suggest Labour will easily win, Sunak was booed and heckled over doctors’ strikes, migration and his policy to introduce national service for young people.

Starmer was taken to task for what one audience member said was his avoidance of answering questions, and over his previous support of his predecessor, left-wing veteran Jeremy Corbyn.

A poll taken after the event in the northern English town of Grimsby said 64 percent believed Starmer had won the event on Sky News.

Starmer told the audience that he would start implementing his policies from ‘day one’ if he won the election but shied away from answering whether he was being honest when in 2019 he said his left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, should become prime minister.

“I want to get the place when I can roll up my sleeves and work with you ... to say the government is on your side,” Starmer said to applause. “That will be a massive difference to the last 14 years.”

SUNAK BOOED

Sunak was challenged over some of his policies, which audience members said had yet to solve their inability to get dentist appointments, reduce waiting lists in the National Health Service or stop the arrival of migrants in small boats.

“I know we’ve been through a tough time, of course we have... its been tough for all of you here tonight, all of you watching, but I do believe we have turned a corner and we’ve got a clear plan for the future,” he said.

“I am going to keep fighting hard until the last day of this election.”

The event came a day after Sunak unveiled 17 billion pounds of tax cuts in his governing party’s manifesto, trying to convince voters’ that he had a plan to make them better off while Labour’s policies are vague and ill-thought through.

He said again on Wednesday that a vote for Starmer was akin to writing him a blank cheque, repeating the contested accusation that a Labour government would increase taxes by more than 2,000 pounds. Starmer denied that was the case.

On Thursday, Labour will be try to set the story straight with its own manifesto, a document which sets out the policies the party will pursue in government, an agenda Starmer said would put wealth creation and economic growth at its heart.

Labour has repeatedly said it will stick to strict spending rules — a line Labour, traditionally seen as the party of tax and spend, has adopted not only to try to show it has changed since being led by Corbyn but also to challenge Conservative attacks that it will increase taxes.

But it was Corbyn who came back to haunt Starmer on Wednesday, when he was asked whether he believed what he said when in 2019 he said the veteran leftist would make a good prime minister and when he made 10 left-wing pledges to become Labour leader a year later, several of which he has since dropped.

“Have I changed my position on those pledges, yes I have,” said Starmer. “I think this party should always put the country first.”


US slams Russia over alleged abduction of Ukrainian children

Updated 18 min 12 sec ago
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US slams Russia over alleged abduction of Ukrainian children

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday again accused Russia of taking Ukrainian children, some of whom were put up for adoption, after fresh media accounts detailed alleged abductions.

“This is despicable and appalling. These Ukrainian children belong with their families inside Ukraine,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.

“Russia is waging a war not just against the Ukrainian military — but against the Ukrainian people.”

An investigation by the Financial Times, published Wednesday, identified and located four Ukrainian children allegedly transferred to Russia, then offered for adoption on the website usynovite.

The children are aged between 8 and 15 years old.

According to the report, the name of one child was changed to Russian and no mention is made on the site of their Ukrainian origins.

Ukraine is demanding the return of nearly 20,000 minors it says have been illegally taken by Russia since the start of Moscow’s invasion in 2022.

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, over the allegations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told AFP last month that he planned to make the return of children a top priority at this weekend’s summit in Switzerland on ending the war.


US expands Russia sanctions, targets chips sent via China

Updated 28 min 36 sec ago
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US expands Russia sanctions, targets chips sent via China

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday dramatically broadened sanctions on Russia, including by targeting China-based companies selling semiconductors to Moscow, as part of its effort to undercut the Russian military machine waging war on Ukraine.

Among the steps, the US Treasury said it was raising “the risk of secondary sanctions for foreign financial institutions that deal with Russia’s war economy,” effectively threatening them with losing access to the US financial system.

It also said it was moving to restrict the Russian military industrial base’s ability to exploit certain US software and information technology services and, with the State Department, targeting more than 300 individuals and entities in Russia and beyond, including in Asia, Europe and Africa.

Separately, the Commerce Department said it was targeting shell companies in Hong Kong for diverting semiconductors to Russia, taking steps that would affect nearly $100 million of high-priority items for Moscow including such chips.

It will also expand its lists of items Russia cannot import from other nations to cover not just US-origin products but US-branded goods, meaning those made with US intellectual property or technology, a senior Commerce official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

US-made chips and other technology have been found in a wide array of Russian equipment, from drones to radios, missiles and armored vehicles, recovered from the battlefield, Ukrainian officials say.

After seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbor in 2022, triggering a host of new US economic sanctions on Moscow.

While many analysts do not expect US and other nations’ sanctions to materially change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus, they believe they will both make it harder for Moscow to wage war and, over time, weaken Russia’s economy.

“Today’s actions strike at their remaining avenues for international materials and equipment, including their reliance on critical supplies from third countries,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

The Treasury also said it was imposing sanctions on key parts of Russia’s financial infrastructure, including the Moscow Exchange (MOEX), which operates Russia’s largest public markets for equity, fixed income, foreign exchange and other products.

MOEX and its related subsidiaries have facilitated sanctions evasion by obscuring the identities of parties engaged in such transactions, a senior Treasury official told reporters. By sanctioning them, the official said, the US would force greater transparency on cross-border transactions, making it harder to evade sanctions.

MOEX, in a statement rushed out within an hour of the US moves on Wednesday, a public holiday in Russia, said the new sanctions had forced an immediate suspension of trading in dollars and euros on its leading financial marketplace.

The news came as President Joe Biden departed for a summit in southern Italy with leaders from other Group of Seven democracies: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

One of the G7 leaders’ priorities is boosting support for Ukraine, now in the third year of resisting Russia’s invasion, and disarming the Russian war machine.

Peter Harrell, who served as White House senior director for international economics in 2021 and 2022, described the latest sanctions as a “paradigm shift,” partly because they expose foreign banks to the risk of being cut off from the US financial system if they deal with key large Russian banks.

The Treasury accomplished this by increasing to 4,500 the universe of Russian companies and individuals who could trigger such sanctions from about 1,200, the senior Treasury official told reporters.

“For the first time, the US is shifting toward something that begins to look like ... an effort to set up a global financial embargo on Russia,” Harrell said.


Iran frees imprisoned French citizen: Macron

Updated 36 min 17 sec ago
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Iran frees imprisoned French citizen: Macron

PARIS: Iranian authorities have released a French citizen held since September 2022, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced Wednesday, urging Tehran to free three other French citizens “without delay.”

“Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran,” Macron posted on X, thanking Oman in particular for helping to secure “this happy outcome.”


Biden faces first lawsuit over new asylum crackdown at the border

Updated 39 min 20 sec ago
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Biden faces first lawsuit over new asylum crackdown at the border

  • The order Biden issued last week would limit asylum processing once encounters with migrants between ports of entry reach 2,500 per day.

WASHINGTON: A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups sued the Biden administration on Wednesday over President Joe Biden’s recent directive that effectively halts asylum claims at the southern border, saying it differs little from a similar move during the Trump administration that was blocked by the courts.

The lawsuit — filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and RAICES — is the first test of the legality of Biden’s sweeping crackdown on the border, which came after months of internal White House deliberations and is designed in part to deflect political attacks against the president on his handling of immigration.

“By enacting an asylum ban that is legally indistinguishable from the Trump ban we successfully blocked, we were left with no choice but to file this lawsuit,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the ACLU.

The order Biden issued last week would limit asylum processing once encounters with migrants between ports of entry reach 2,500 per day. It went into effect immediately because the latest figures were far higher, at about 4,000 daily.

The restrictions would be in effect until two weeks after the daily encounter numbers are at or below 1,500 per day between ports of entry, under a seven-day average. But it’s far from clear when the numbers would dip that low; the last time was in July 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order went into effect June 5, and Biden administration officials have said they expected record levels of deportations.

But advocates argue that suspending asylum for migrants who don’t arrive at a designated port of entry — which the Biden administration is trying to push migrants to do — violates existing federal immigration law, among other concerns.

Biden invoked the same legal authority used by the Trump administration for its asylum ban, which comes under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That provision allows a president to limit entries for certain migrants if their entry is deemed “detrimental” to the national interest.

Biden has repeatedly criticized Trump’s immigration policies as he campaigns, and his administration argues that his directive is different because it includes several exemptions for humanitarian reasons. For example, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors and those with severe medical emergencies would not be subject to the limits.

“We stand by the legality of what we have done,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on ABC’s “This Week” before the lawsuit was filed, saying he anticipated legal challenges. “We stand by the value proposition.”

Under Biden’s directive, migrants who arrive at the border but do not express a fear of returning to their home countries will be subject to immediate removal from the United States, within a matter of days or even hours. Those migrants could face punishments that could include a five-year bar from reentering the US or even criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile, those who express fear or an intention to seek asylum will be screened by a US asylum officer but at a higher standard than currently used. If they pass the screening, they can pursue more limited forms of humanitarian protection, including the UN Convention Against Torture, which prohibits returning people to a country where they’re likely to face torture.