China's defence budget this year will rise by around 7 per cent over last year's US$147 billion (S$207 billion), a senior official has said, pointing out that increasing China's military capability would benefit peace and security in the region.
Ms Fu Ying, spokesman for the National People's Congress (NPC), China's Parliament, said 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.
She was speaking to local and foreign media ahead of the opening of the NPC's annual session today.
China has territorial disputes with four Asean states - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - and tensions have risen in recent years over China's growing assertiveness in its claims, including building artificial islands on reefs it occupies and placing military facilities on them. Beijing also has a territorial dispute 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.
Its defence budget, therefore, is closely watched across the globe.
This is the second year running that the budget increase is down to a single digit. Last year saw a 7.6 per cent rise over 2015. The last double- digit rise was in 2015 at 11 per cent.
While the 7 per cent increase is the smallest in seven years, it is still a substantial amount because of the high base of the budget, noted regional security expert Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
He said China's defence budget is the world's second-highest after the US. It would be adequate for the military's needs as well as its modernisation programmes.
For major powers like the US and Japan, 7 per cent would be too high an increase "because of their apparently adversarial security relationship" with China, he said.
Yesterday's announcement came just days after US President Donald Trump said he would boost defence spending by about 10 per cent.
Associate Professor Li said that for countries in South-east Asia, looking at China's budget increase is not meaningful because of the "huge asymmetry" in their military capabilities. "The more important factor for countries in South-east Asia would be the actual security policy and behaviour of China in regional security issues like the South China Sea," he said.
Ms Fu yesterday assuaged fears over China's military capability. "Increasing the capability of China will help maintain peace and stability in this region." She said 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".
The US has stepped up its security alliances and partnerships in the region while Japan has provided patrol boats to Asean claimant states.
Ms Fu also fielded a wide-ranging slew of questions from Sino-US relations to China's global role to domestic concerns such as food safety and pollution.