BEIJING • A slowing economy is unlikely to crimp China's 2019 defence budget rise, as Beijing earmarks more spending for modernisation and big-ticket items like stealth jets and focuses on Taiwan after a stern New Year's speech from President Xi Jinping.
The defence spending figure is closely watched worldwide for clues to China's strategic intentions as it develops new military capabilities, including aircraft carriers and anti-satellite missiles.
Last year, China unveiled its largest defence spending increase in three years, setting an 8.1 per cent growth target for the year, fuelling an ambitious military upgrade programme and making its neighbours nervous.
This year's figure is expected to be revealed at the March 5 opening of the annual Parliament session, though in 2017, it was initially not announced, prompting renewed concerns about transparency.
China plans to set a lower economic growth target of 6 per cent to 6.5 per cent this year, compared with last year's target of around 6.5 per cent, policy sources said.
The government will also announce the economic growth target on March 5. But the defence budget increase could well surpass that.
State-run tabloid Global Times, which takes a strongly nationalistic line, this month cited an unnamed military expert as saying "a stable 8 to 9 per cent increase from 2018 would be a reasonable prediction".
China still has a long way to go to catch up with Western forces, as the number of advanced weapons now in its arsenal, like the J-20 stealth fighter, remains limited, the paper said.
Mr Xi's speech last month threatening to attack Taiwan should it not accept Chinese rule has shot the issue back up the agenda for the country's military thinkers, especially as the island gears up for presidential elections next year.
"The Taiwan question can't keep being put off, passed down through the generations," retired Chinese Major-General Luo Yuan, one of the country's most prominent military commentators, wrote on his blog last month. "Our generation must complete our historic mission."
One source with ties to China's military said the armed forces were itching for a fight over self-ruled Taiwan, claimed by China as its territory, especially after Mr Xi's speech.
"Every day, they're like 'fight, fight, fight'," said the source, who meets regularly with senior officers.
United States President Donald Trump has backed plans to request US$750 billion (S$1.01 trillion) from Congress for defence spending this year. That compares with the 1.11 trillion yuan (S$223.7 billion) China set for its military budget last year.
China provides no breakdown of its defence budget, leading neighbours and other military powers to complain that its lack of transparency has added to regional tension. China says it is fully transparent and is no threat.