Confronting a slowdown in growth, China says it will only increase its defence budget by 7.6% this year, against the anticipated rise of between 20% and 30%.
'It is difficult to explain the reduction in the Chinese defence budget,' says Claude Arpi. 'Is there a hidden budget? Possibly!'
China likes to coin new catchphrases.
Lately, Beijing speaks of the 'new normal.'
It is an economic term referring to the acceptable slowdown of its trade and industry; the coming year's GDP (gross domestic product) growth is estimated to be between 6.5 percent and 7 percent.
The fact that these figures are 'normal' show 'the government's higher tolerance for slower growth compared with the breakneck expansion China's economy has seen over the past three decades,' writes The South China Morning Post.
One of the consequences of the 'new normal' is the unexpected cut in the defence budget.
Quoting Fu Ying, the spokeswoman for the fourth session of the 12th National People's Congress, on March 3, Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, announced that China would raise its defence budget by 7 percent to 8 percent in 2016-2017 (it was later confirmed that the increase will be 7.6%).
It will be the smallest military budget increase percentage-wise in several years.
The Global Times admitted that the news came as a surprise 'as some media previously predicted that the defence budget would increase by as high as 20 percent.' It is what the usually well-informed The South China Morning Post had expected.
A couple of weeks earlier, Reuters had even reported from 'a source with ties to senior officers' that a 30 percent increase in military spending for the coming year would be a possibility; this figure was apparently mooted in military circles.
Reuters had added that the actual rise was unlikely to be that dramatic: 'The party has got to show the troop cuts don't mean the military is being ignored or shunted aside,' the source told the agency.
Well, if 7.6% increase reflects the true budget, it is definitively a let-down.
The justification for the consequent increase, which did not happen, was that the Communist Party wanted to tackle the unhappiness in the People's Liberation Aarmy ranks after the sweeping reforms and the renewed tension over the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, with a new president taking charge in Taiwan soon.
Fu Ying had stated that the 2016 figure was in line 'with China's national defence needs and fiscal revenue.' The Global Times admitted that the Chinese economy expanded 'at the slowest in a quarter century, weighed down by a property market downturn, falling trade and weak factory activity.'
Interestingly, a military 'expert' told the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece that it was normal 'as the nation gradually completed the construction of its basic military infrastructure, which used to require the majority of the budget,' less funds were now required. Difficult to believe this argument!
One can cite the reshuffle of the Theater Commands, the setting up of a PLA Rocket Force and a Strategic Support Force or the 15 new departments, offices and commissions, which will directly work under the Central Military Commission, all this requires funds.
These in-depth reforms, without mentioning the retrenchment of 300,000 defence personnel and a large number of sophisticated new military drills, is not free.
The Hong Kong Commercial Daily mentions the military personnel's pay rise which started in 2015, 'to close the gap between Chinese military staff and their Western counterparts.'
'China used to have a limited military budget,' the newspaper added, 'which also led to poor treatment -- this is one of the reasons that gave rise to corruption within the military.'
It is difficult to explain the reduction in the Chinese defence budget. It does not appear very 'normal'. Is there a hidden budget? Possibly!
But many other things are not 'normal' in the Middle Kingdom.
The The South China Morning Post described the 'overriding' atmosphere at the opening ceremony of China's political consultative body: In a word, it was tense. Not surprising, given the annual pow-wow of the governing class has arrived at such a strained time for the nation.
In a notice given barely a few hours before the opening of the Two Sessions Show in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the use of selfie sticks was banned for the first time for reporters, who were deeply displeased.
Politburo members seated on the rostrum appeared to be stiff throughout the opening of the meeting, The South China Morning Post added. 'Even whispering was rare. Chinese President Xi Jinping barely talked to anyone on the rostrum, until Wang Qishan, the party's anti-graft chief, ran up to him after the ceremony.' What Wang, also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, told Xi will never be known.
Something else is not 'normal' in China; it the stiffening of the Communist Party's propaganda and discipline. On February 25, Xinhua announced that members of the Communist Party have been asked to 'absorb' Xi Jinping's views by learning from an article written a long time ago by Mao Zedong.
All were requested to do their homework, study and implement the ideas put forward in The Work Method of Party Committees, published in March 1949, hardly six months before the Communists took over the Middle Kingdom.
A Guardian article, titled: 'Love the party, protect the party: How Xi Jinping is bringing China's media to heel,' asserted: 'The Communist party is in a "no holds barred" battle to wrestle absolute control of all media to project a better image of China.'
The China Daily affirmed that 'it is necessary for the media to restore people's trust in the Party... The nation's media outlets are essential to political stability.'; Read 'stability of the Party.'
A few days later, Ren Zhiqiang, a property tycoon, one of the richest men in China and a long-time 'outstanding party member' dared to question Xi Jinping's 'absolute loyalty to the Party.' Ren's microblogging accounts were swiftly blocked.
Ren, a Communist Party official announced, would be 'dealt with seriously' for his critical postings: 'Any remark that does not accord with the party's lines, principles and policies, whether it is on the Internet or other media platforms, is not allowed under party discipline,' the official stated. Ren has (or had) 26 million microblog followers.
In terms of tolerance, India is eons ahead of China with an opinionated press, scores of anti-government news channels and an extra-vigilant judiciary.
Regarding the defence budget, do we need to worry too much for China? Its 7.6 percent increase corresponds to $146 billion. India's defence allocation is only $40 billion. It will take India some time to catch up.