National People's Congress spokeswoman Fu Ying declined to announce the country's 2013 defence budget at a news conference yesterday, breaking with precedence.
Fu, the first female spokesperson for an NPC session, said the vast investment in the military had contributed to global peace and stability, but refused to disclose this year's spending increase, unlike her predecessors Jiang Enzhu and Li Zhaoxing, who announced the defence budget at NPC news briefings since 2006.
"As such a big country, China's inability to ensure its own security would not be good news for the world," Fu said. "Our strengthening of our defence is to defend ourselves, to defend security and peace, and not to threaten other countries."
After 10 minutes of explaining why China needed to increase its military budget, she told journalists to get the details from reports to be delivered at today's opening of the NPC's annual session.
Her answer disappointed hundreds of reporters who had crowded into the conference room, with many having queued up outside for three hours before the briefing.
Some military experts estimate this year's defence budget will be 15 per cent more than last year's 670.2 billion yuan (HK$826 billion), which was an 11.2 per cent increase on 2011.
"Under rapid inflationary pressure, Beijing definitely needs to increase the military budget this year, which I think should be a bigger increase than last year," Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.
Professor Ni Lexiong , director of the sea power and defence policy research institute at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said Beijing would have had to increase the military budget by 20 per cent to cope with soaring inflation if Communist Party chief Xi Jinping had not pushed ahead with his high-profile campaign to rid the party and the military of corruption and waste.
The People's Liberation Army has cut the budget for leaders' inspection trips, cancelled unnecessary propaganda work and abolished some old traditions.
"The anti-corruption campaign will help the army to save more money," Ni said, adding that a 15 per cent increase would be reasonable. "But such a double-digit increase would definitely be stirred up as a 'China threat' by overseas media amid the tension between China and Japan over their territorial dispute in the East China Sea if it was announced today, with the military budget being the sole focus in the eyes of the overseas media."
Antony Wong Dong, of the Macau-based International Military Association, said the impact of the defence expending increase would be played down if it was announced along with other budget estimates today.
"The military budget has been the most sensitive and hottest topic for the overseas media for many years," he said.
China's defence spending has grown substantially each year for more than two decades.