BEIJING - China's defence budget this year will rise by around seven per cent over last year's US$147 billion (S$207 billion), a senior Chinese official said on Saturday (March 4), while pointing out that China's military poses no threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Ms Fu Ying, spokesman for the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament, added that the situation in the South China Sea is "calming down" as China and Asean countries have returned to consultations and negotiations over their disputes.
Ms Fu was speaking to local and foreign media ahead of the opening of the annual session of the NPC on Sunday.
China has territorial disputes with four Asean countries - the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam - and tensions have risen in recent years over China's growing assertiveness in its claims, including building of artificial islands on reefs it occupies and placing of military facilities on them.
Beijing also has territorial disputes in the East China Sea with Japan.
China's maritime claims are also viewed as excessive by the United States, which has in recent years conducted freedom of navigation and overflight operations close to Chinese-claimed islands and reefs.
China’s defence budget, therefore, is closely watched in the region and beyond.
This year is the second year running that the budget increase is down to a single digit, with last year's 7.6-per-cent rise over 2015's. The last double-digit rise was in 2015 at 11 per cent.
On concerns over freedom of navigation, Ms Fu noted to the contrary that a Reuters survey last year showed that some shipping companies believed "China's presence in the region is good for security".
On China's military capability, she said: "Increasing the capability of China will help maintain peace and stability in this region rather than the opposite."
She added that while China wanted a peaceful solution to territorial and maritime disputes through dialogue and consultation, it also needs to "guard against outside meddling in the disputes".
Ms Fu answered a wide-ranging slew of questions at the press conference on Saturday, from Sino-US relations, China's global role to domestic concerns such as food safety, new civil law, property prices, tax reduction and pollution.