China will boost its defense budget by “around 7 percent” this year, a top official said Saturday, as Beijing seeks to inject more cash into its increasingly modern military amid “outside meddling” in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.

“Concerning the . . . territorial and maritime disputes in China’s neighborhood, we have called for the peaceful settlement through dialogue and consultations,” Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress, said a day before the rubber-stamp parliament’s annual session kicks off.

“At the same time, we need the ability to safeguard our interests and rights,” she added. “In particular, we need to guard against outside meddling in the disputes.”

Fu said the defense figure — which compared with last year’s 7.6 percent hike — will account for around 1.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Last year was the first time in six years that Chinese defense spending fell below double-digit figures.

The exact figure was to be provided by Premier Li Keqiang during his address at the beginning of the congress’ opening session Sunday morning.

Although China provides official estimates of defense spending each year, outside estimates of its defense budget are often significantly higher than officially released numbers.

According to a report released last year by the Center for Strategic Studies’ China Power Project, Beijing also “provides limited information on the distribution of its military spending, which obscures spending patterns that may indicate the relative importance of a particular branch of the Chinese military, how China might be responding to perceived external threats, and where China is investing in new technologies.”

Saturday’s preliminary figure came just days after a draft budget was released by the White House proposing a $54 billion, or 10 percent, expansion in defense spending from the level in the current budget year. U.S. President Donald Trump will formally submit his first budget to Congress later this month.

Beijing and Washington have clashed over the disputed South China Sea, with the U.S. conducting what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the waters. China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. While the U.S. is not a claimant, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims with China.

The United States has voiced concern over China’s man-made islets in the strategic waterway. Beijing has reportedly deployed anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems to some of the outposts there despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further “militarize” the islands. It has built military-grade airfields on three of the islands, where it has also constructed fortified structures believed to be intended for housing surface-to-air missile systems.

In the East China Sea, Beijing and Tokyo have faced off over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, where the tiny islets are known as the Diaoyus.

Fu said China’s growing military capabilities “will help maintain peace and stability in the region, rather than the opposite.”

“Now the trend over the disputes is very clear, China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have returned to the track of consultation and negotiations and the situation in the South China Sea is calming down,” Fu said. “The future trend will depend on U.S. intentions in the region. U.S. activities, to a certain extent, are a barometer for the situation there.

“If people would like to make an issue of navigational safety in the region, it is quite misleading,” Fu added.

Last year, U.S. warships conducted several freedom of navigation operations to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit access in the waters and also to challenge its “excessive maritime claims” in the South China Sea.

In mid-February, the United States also sent the navy’s Carrier Strike Group 1, which includes the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, into the South China Sea for what it called “routine operations.”

China’s Defense Ministry has said it is monitoring the ongoing Vinson-led operations — the first in the waterway under the Trump administration.

Fu said the U.S. was likely “concerned that China may catch up with the U.S. in terms of (military) capabilities.”

However, she said, “we are a developing country and there is a huge capability gap” between China and the U.S.

“Whether the militaries will pose a threat to each another, we’ll need to look at their strategic intentions,” she added.

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