Xi has also embarked on a massive internal reorganization of the PLA, streamlining the organization and bringing it firmly under his control.
Experts said the slight drop was likely to avoid domestic perceptions that the country’s military spending far exceeded its overall economic growth, which is set to grow at no more than 6.5% in 2019.
But Beijing is rapidly gaining ground on its American rival, by churning out naval vessels and making technological advances, according to Andrew Erickson, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.
“No one has presided over this level of Chinese military development in Chinese history before Xi Jinping,” he said.
‘Armed forces to be reckoned with’
Directly comparing every aspect of two countries’ military budgets is impossible, said Erickson, because different governments count spending in different ways.
But the US expert said it was incontrovertible that China’s military budget was the second largest in the world.
“Clearly, overall, these are armed forces to be reckoned with. In many areas, they have weapons systems that only a few other countries possess,” he said.
“If you look where China’s military was a few short years ago, under Xi the progress is truly tremendous. It is very impressive.”
“China’s navy is receiving warships so quickly that Chinese sources liken this to dumping dumplings into soup broth,” Erickson said.
The Chinese air force has also been regularly debuting new and improved planes and weapons, including the twin-engine J-20 stealth fighter.
Multiple former generals have been disciplined or imprisoned for corruption in an attempt to professionalize the armed services.
Aircraft carriers and corvettes
While the military strengths of the US and China are often compared, the two governments ostensibly have built their armed forces to serve different goals.
Washington says it aims to maintain a worldwide reach for its military to protect allies and American interests internationally.
Beijing claims its interests lie closer to home.
Zhang Yesui, the National People’s Congress spokesman, on Monday afternoon told reporters: “China’s limited defense spending, which is for safeguarding its national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, poses no threat to any other country.
“Whether a country is a military threat to others or not is not determined by its increase in defense expenditure, but by the foreign and national defense policies it adopts.”
The major scenarios that China’s military cares about could be called “home games, rather than away games,” Erickson said.
The Chinese government has built a navy and armed forces designed to protect the country and exert its influence in the surrounding region, especially the East and South China seas.
The proof is in the military hardware that the two countries have focused on.
While the US has a huge fleet of 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, China has barely one conventionally powered carrier operating, with another in the wings. The Type 001A, the country’s first homegrown aircraft carrier, was launched in 2018 but still has not joined the fleet.
Backing this up is China’s rapid production of frigates, another small type of warship, and the arming and expansion of the country’s coast guard.
“They’re building power projection capabilities which will give them greater ability to project presence and power (into) the Pacific and the Indian Ocean,” said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
China has undoubtedly made rapid progress. Some experts, however, doubt its ability to fight as a coherent force or the experience of its troops.
Such a missile could in theory be based well out-of-range of US naval strike forces while putting Washington’s biggest assets, its aircraft carriers, in range.
But Schuster says no military has ever successfully developed an anti-ship ballistic missile and China had shown no evidence of actually being able to hit a moving target in the ocean.
There is also discontent within the Chinese military over the treatment of veterans. The decision in 2015 to lay off 300,000 soldiers over three years to streamline the armed forces led to repeated mass protests in a number of cities after the government failed to pay all their pensions in full.
But Davis said the military prospects of the United States are looking increasingly troubled, thanks to rising maintenance costs and an aging fleet, which might give Beijing the chance it needs to catch up.
“It’s not clear the traditional advantage in military technology for the US is going to remain intact,” he said.
“Getting that balance between sustainment and modernization right is a real challenge for the US as their forces get older and older, whereas the Chinese are steamrolling ahead.”
CNN’s Serenitie Wang and Brad Lendon contributed to this article.