Beijing announced another double-digit rise in its defence budget yesterday but the pace of growth will be down slightly on last year.
The budget report, released yesterday for review at the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), said military expenditure would rise by 10.7 per cent to 720 billion yuan (HK$888 billion) this year.
It said the budget increase would be used to improve working and living conditions for members of the People's Liberation Army, to press ahead with the army's modernisation and to boost national security.
The defence budget grew by 11.2 per cent last year and by 12.6 per cent in 2011.
Military experts said the smaller increase had political overtones because Beijing wanted to play down "China threat" fears amid territorial disputes with neighbouring countries.
"The slowdown shows Beijing's willingness to comfort those small countries involved in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and show that we are really going to have a peaceful rise," said Professor Ni Lexiong , director of the sea power and defence policy research institute at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, adding the increase was less than he expected.
PLA representatives at yesterday's opening of the NPC session said they could accept the slowdown but hoped the government would continue paying attention to the army's modernisation.
"Under inflationary pressure, it's quite reasonable to increase military spending because we need to support soldiers' living standards and strengthen our national security," said General Qiu Wenming , a commander in the strategic missile corps.
Lieutenant General Lu Dingwen , deputy commander of the Guangzhou Military Command, said the army preferred a bigger increase. "But of course we submit to the needs of our country and take care of the whole situation," he said.
Former PLA Navy political commissar Hu Yanlin said on the sidelines of the NPC session that more spending would be allocated to the navy, given its desire to become a maritime power - a keynote policy first declared by President Hu Jintao and then endorsed by Communist Party chief Xi Jinping at the party's national congress in November.
"In our defence budget, the navy has still been given priority," he said, referring to recent achievements such as the launch of their first aircraft carrier, which staged successful take-off and landing tests.
Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, said China's actual defence spending would probably be three times the figure announced yesterday.
"Just like the previous budgets, this year they still failed to include two key items - the defence technology research and development budget and the special programmes budget used to purchase weapons overseas," Chang said. "Both are directly allocated by the Ministry of Finance to different institutes for R&D purposes."