After expanding by double digits annually since 2011, China's defence budget will grow by a lower-than- expected 7 to 8 per cent this year, as Beijing seeks to balance economic challenges with the need to assert its territorial claims.
Parliamentary spokesman Fu Ying revealed the closely watched figure at a press conference here yesterday, as reports emerged that the United States had dispatched an aircraft carrier and several ships to the South China Sea in the past few days.
The actual increase will be made known today, when the National People's Congress, China's Parliament, opens its annual session, said Ms Fu.
Even at 8 per cent, the rise would be one of the smallest since 1988, when the defence budget grew 3.8 per cent and then saw a nearly unbroken streak of double-digit increases. The exception was 2010, when the budget grew 7.5 per cent.
China's military spending rose by 10.1 per cent last year to 887 billion yuan (S$188 billion), which still represents only about a quarter of the US defence budget.
This year's increase falls far short of some estimates predicting a sharp uptick of up to 30 per cent amid President Xi Jinping's efforts to modernise the military.
Ms Fu said the defence budget is based on two considerations: national defence needs, and the state of China's economy and its fiscal revenues.
Observers say the country's slowing economy, which notched its weakest growth in a quarter of a century with a 6.9 per cent expansion last year, was a key reason for the smaller increase in the defence budget.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, speaking at a regular briefing, said China's military spending has been maintained at a reasonable level as he reiterated its "defensive" military posture.
"We continue to ensure that defence construction and economic development are in sync, and focus on controlling defence spending," he said.
He added that Beijing is also constantly raising the transparency of its military, and urged other countries to view China's defence spending increase in a rational way.
It is not clear whether Washington's dispatch of an aircraft carrier is part of a series of its recent freedom of navigation operations to counter Beijing's deployment of missiles and construction of military facilities on islands in the South China Sea. China faces overlapping claims from neighbours, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
Ms Fu rebutted criticisms that China was militarising the region through its actions. "If you want to talk about militarisation, if you take a closer look, is it not the US that is deploying the most advanced aircraft and warships?" she said, adding that Washington's actions have led to a sense of "disgust" among the Chinese people.
While Beijing's recent activities, including reclamation works and building of air strips on disputed isles, have rattled nerves in the region, Ms Fu maintained that China's actions were aimed at raising its self-defence capability and ability to provide public good and maintain regional peace and stability. "Our expansion and building of islands and reefs in the South China Sea are really necessary, and the Chinese people all support it," she added.
Yesterday, she also fielded domestic and foreign policy questions that touched on the new sanctions against North Korea, a controversial draft law governing foreign non-governmental organisations and Beijing's efforts to tackle smog.