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China says higher military spending is needed to keep the peace

China’s plans to increase its military spending by 12.2 percent this year, a boost over 2013, will surely agitate some neighbors but please Chinese nationalists who want their country to assert itself as a dominant Asian power.

The jump in military spending, announced Wednesday on the first day of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, comes amid a war of words between Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Relations between the trading partners have soured, and some analysts fear that a maritime mishap could spiral into full-blown war.

China spends less per capita on defense than the United States and many other countries do, but it’s steadily built up its armed forces, even as its economic growth has slowed. Last year, the world’s largest nation spent 10.7 percent of its budget on the military. This year’s 12.2 percent increase means that China will spend nearly 808 billion yuan, or nearly $132 billion, on defense, although many experts think the true figure is higher. For comparison, the U.S. Defense Department budget for this year is about $600 billion.

Denny Roy, who specializes in Asia security issues for the East-West Center in Honolulu, said the hike in military spending “will reinforce the image of China being ‘assertive,’ of preparing to force its will upon some of its neighbors.”

Roy noted that Chinese leaders chafe at this kind of perception, arguing they’re just building a military that’s proportional to China’s size and global interests. “But countries with strategic disagreements with China, particularly Japan, the USA and some of the Southeast Asian countries, will continue to ask what is the compelling need on China’s part,” Roy said in an email exchange with McClatchy.

All this week, the Chinese government has sent mixed messages about the need for its military buildup _ which is gaining increasing scrutiny, at home and abroad _ as the nation holds the line on other government spending. China is expecting a growth rate in its gross domestic product this year of 7.5 percent, the same as the target last year.

Speaking in the Great Hall of the People, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said “the Chinese people love peace and cherish development, and China needs a long-term stable international environment for its modernization.”

Yet earlier in his speech Li talked about the need to “build China into a maritime power.”

“We will strengthen national defense mobilization and the reserve forces, place water preparations on a regular footing and enhance border, coastal and air defenses,” Li said, speaking before roughly 3,000 delegates. President Xi Jinping and other top government leaders sat behind him.

The same day Li spoke, the state-run China Daily newspaper published a provocative interview with a top Chinese military adviser. The adviser, Qian Lihua, a major general and a former head of the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office, said conflict with neighboring countries couldn’t be ruled out, with Japan as a particular problem.

“Japan has lost its direction, and has been taken advantage of by right-wing forces to challenge the international order created after World War II,” Qian was quoted as saying.

Friction between Japan and other Asian countries has intensified during the administration of Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, a politician with a history of making statements insensitive to nations that were victims of Japan’s past war crimes. The mounting tensions prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to visit South Korea and China last month. Top State Department officials remain concerned about the potential for conflict.

“I do not believe that any party seeks armed conflict in the East China Sea,” Daniel R. Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in testimony to a Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee Tuesday. “But unintended incidents or accidents may lead to an escalation of tensions or a tit-for-tat exchange that could escalate.”

While the meeting of the National People’s Congress is largely a ceremonial affair, the annual “work plan” speech by the premier is watched closely for signs of China’s growth plans and priorities, much as the State of the Union address is tightly parsed in the United States.

Much of Li’s speech was devoted to China’s economic reforms _ the transition to a consumer economy with less dependence on exports and heavy industry. He also noted China’s myriad challenges, ranging from air pollution to insufficient services for the elderly to, more recently, domestic terrorism.

The session started with a moment of silence for the 29 people killed and 140 injured Saturday in an organized knife attack in the south China city of Kunming. Li broke from his prepared text to say, “We will firmly crack down on all violent crimes of terrorism as they violate the dignity of law.”

Authorities have blamed the Kunming bloodbath on assailants from a far western region of China, Xinjiang, which is home to millions of Uighur people, one of China’s many ethnic minorities.

Following the speech, a delegate from Yunnan province said she welcomed stronger government efforts to weed out terrorists such as those who’d attacked Kunming, which is Yunnan’s capital. The delegate _ Yang Jinsong, a member of the Naxi ethnic group _ compared the shock of the attack to what the United States experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Just like Americans, we the Chinese will definitely make big progress on anti-terrorism as well,” said Yang, standing outside the Hall of the People bedecked in a Naxi robe with a beaded headpiece. “We will collaborate with American people and people around the world to fight against such actions.”

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.

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