BEIJING (AFP) – China announced a renewed double-digit hike in military spending on Friday after funding slowed last year, but insisted the nearly $92 billion outlay posed no external threat despite concerns abroad.
The defence budget will rise 12.7 percent in 2011 to 601.1 billion yuan ($91.7 billion), said Li Zhaoxing, spokesman for China’s national parliament, citing a budget report to be submitted to the rubber-stamp legislature.
“China has always paid attention to controlling the size of defence spending,” Li, a former foreign minister, told reporters.
He described the budget as “relatively low” as a percentage of gross domestic product compared with the rest of the world.
But the number represents a return to double-digit increases in military spending, which have alarmed the United States, Japan, Australia and several of China’s Asian neighbours.
That multi-year trend had been broken in 2010 when the budget rose 7.5 percent. In any case, many analysts say the announced budget is far lower than actual spending.
The People’s Liberation Army — the world’s largest — is hugely secretive about its defence programmes, but insists its modernisation is purely defensive in nature to protect China’s vast land and sea borders.
“This will not pose a threat to any country,” said Li, adding the spending figure represented six percent of the total national budget in the world’s second-largest economy.
Willy Lam, a China analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the published military budget — which he noted was likely only one-third to one-half of actual spending — will be poured into next-generation equipment.
“The return to this double-digit PLA budget reflects the growing power of the PLA,” Lam told AFP. “They are trying to close the gap with Russia and the United States.”
The build-up is also widely seen as geared in large part at reclaiming Taiwan, which split from the mainland in 1949 after a civil war. Taiwanese experts say China has more than 1,600 missiles aimed at the self-ruled island.
Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in the United States, said the increases also reflect jitters among the country’s leadership over its hold on power.
China already sees tens of thousands of protests each year, and mounting public concern over high inflation and numerous other issues makes it vital for the Communist Party to secure firm PLA political support, he said.
“China wants to project strength with this return to double-digit military spending, but in reality it reflects serious regime weakness,” Fisher said.
Tokyo has repeatedly questioned Beijing’s military intentions, especially after collisions in disputed waters in September between two Japanese coastguard boats and a Chinese fishing vessel that sparked a major row.
“It is an extremely high ratio for defence spending,” Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara told reporters. “We cannot help worrying about what all the money is used for.”
Japan plans to shift more forces to its scattered southern islands, citing Beijing’s increased regional assertiveness.
India’s defence minister last month expressed “serious concern” over China’s growing military might.
On Monday, New Delhi announced a nearly 12 percent jump in annual defence spending to $36 billion — up from a four percent hike last year.
In January, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing to patch up frayed military ties — and was instead greeted with the maiden flight of China’s first stealth fighter.
Last month, the Pentagon proposed a record “base” defence budget — excluding the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts — of $553 billion for fiscal 2012.
Gates said after his visit that Chinese advances in cyber and anti-satellite warfare pose a potential challenge to US forces’ ability to operate and communicate in the Pacific.
But he added Washington and Tokyo could counter the threat with high-tech hardware and that China would not necessarily become a military rival.
China began revamping the PLA — the former ragtag peasant force formed in 1927 by the Communist Party — in earnest after a troubled 1979 incursion into Vietnam, when the neighbours vied for influence over Southeast Asia.
Besides conventional weaponry upgrades, the push also led to China’s fast-growing space programme and the test of a satellite-killing weapon in 2007.