China unveils less aggressive defense budget


China on Thursday announced the smallest increase in its defense budget in years, in an apparent attempt to assuage international fears that its military is growing too powerful.

Coming after almost two decades of double-digit increases, the relatively modest 7.5% boost in the budget, to $78 billion, also highlights the Chinese leadership’s stated plan to channel funding to social programs.

“China is committed to peace,” said Li Zhaoxing, a spokesman for the National People’s Congress, where the budget figures were released.

It is an annual ritual for the military budget to be announced at the opening session of the congress. But as the legislature has no real oversight of the People’s Liberation Army, the event is largely about what message the Chinese leadership wishes to send.

Western analysts believe that the Chinese government significantly underreports its military spending, so the announced modest increase might in fact be more of a signal than a reflection of reality.

“China’s double-digit military spending had led to worries from neighboring countries like Vietnam and India,” said Ni Lexiong, a defense analyst at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

“Both of those countries began to purchase planes and submarines from Russia. There were signs of an arms race in East Asia, and that would not be good for China,” Ni said.

A slower pace of military spending increases also reflects the ratcheting down of tensions with Taiwan since the 2008 election there of pro-mainland President Ma Ying-jeou. However, at the same time, the threat of restiveness among Tibetans and the Uighurs of the Xin- jiang region in the west has grown.

“The sole purpose of China’s military strength is to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Li said at Thursday’s news conference.

Other Chinese officials have said that much of the increase in defense spending will go to raising pay for the country’s 2.3 million military personnel, whose wages have not kept pace with the rest of the economy.

An analysis by the U.S. Defense Department given to Congress last year estimated that China’s officially disclosed military budget grew an average of 12.9% from 1996 to 2008, well ahead of growth in the gross domestic product, which averaged 9.6% a year.

The Chinese at times have also tried to flaunt their rising military strength, most publicly during the televised spectacle Oct. 1, when the military strutted the latest weaponry past Tiananmen Square in celebration of the 60th anniversary the People’s Republic of China. Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.