BEIJING - China is beefing up spending on high-tech weapons and upgrading combat readiness as it throws its military weight behind territorial claims that have stirred tensions with Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Premier Li Keqiang said the defense budget from the central government — which will rise 12.2 percent to 808.2 billion yuan ($131.6 billion) this year — would be used to modernize the force and enhance defense of its land, coastal and air boundaries.
Defense will make up a slightly larger part of the government’s total expenditure than last year.
In a reference to rising friction with Japan, Li said at the opening of a meeting of the annual legislature that China “will safeguard the victory of World War II and the postwar international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history.”
China has signaled that it won’t back away from its more assertive stance in regional disputes, said Mathieu Duchatel, head of the China and Global Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or Sipri, in Beijing.
“If anyone moves in the region on territorial disputes there will be a strong answer,” Duchatel said. “The rising military spending reinforces this position and makes it more credible.”
China’s increased military spending comes as the U.S. is cutting back.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed a Pentagon budget for the fiscal 2015 year of $495.6 billion that would reduce the army’s personnel by 6 percent to fewer than before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That is still more than three times China’s official spending plans for this year at current exchange rates.
“The rise of China globally, economically, and the fact they’ve the desire to build a military they believe is necessary to defend their interests regionally and globally, we shouldn’t be surprised by that,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command told Congress.
China’s “military is going to rise, and today there’s a report of a 12.2 percent increase in spending, and that’s just what we can see,” Locklear told lawmakers during a testimony before the House Armed Services Committee hearing. “There’s much more that, I’m told, lie below that.”
Some analysts say China’s actual defense spending is much higher than the announced figure. It reached $240 billion last year, about twice the officially declared budget, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said last month.
China’s increased spending will alarm neighbors and has already prompted some, such as Vietnam and Japan, to boost their own military budgets, according to Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington.
“If it is primarily to reinforce Chinese territorial claims at the expense of its neighbors, increased capabilities and assertive behavior will be an increasing source of tensions and problems,” Saunders said.