China is to increase military spending by 8.1 percent this year as the world’s biggest army expands its global reach and continues to modernise.
Beijing’s defence budget is the largest in three years and comes as the Asian giant becomes increasingly assertive under president Xi Jinping.
The Chinese leader is set to clear the way for him to rule for life at the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, which meets this week.
The increase of China’s defence budget to 1.1 trillion yuan (£125 billion) was announced on the opening day of the political gathering on Monday.
It compares with a seven percent increase last year and 7.6 percent in 2016, which marked the first time in six years that spending growth had not risen into double figures.
Li Keqiang, the prime minister, told NPC delegates: “We will stick to the Chinese path in strengthening our armed forces, advance all aspects of military training and war preparedness.”
China has cut 300,000 troops from its forces, leaving it with an army of around two million soldiers.
But the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undergoing a rapid modernisation drive.
It is preparing to launch its second aircraft carrier and has been developing stealth jets and advanced missiles.
China has angered rivals such as Vietnam and the Philippines with what observers see as its growing militarisation of the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.
Washington has also expressed alarm at China’s building of artificial islands in the disputed waters.
China last year opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, a strategic location at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.
Observers said a stalling economy caused officials to rein in spending over the last three years.
China has the world’s second largest defence budget, but it remains only about a quarter of what the United States spends on its military.
Mr Trump last year said he intended to increase US military spending by ten percent to $603 (£491 billion). The US total is about nine times that of Russia, who have the third biggest military budget.
The arms budget in Britain – the world’s fourth biggest defence spender according to some analysts – is expected to edge up 1.2 percent to $51.8bn (£37.5) in 2018.
The prospect of President Xi’s theoretically limitless rule has rattled foreign powers, but delegates at the NPC have expressed enthusiasm.
“If a good leader comes into power, we should let him remain in that leadership position forever. In this way, there is continuity. It’s great!”, said Zhang Donghe, a delegate from the gritty, industrial province of Hebei, which surrounds Beijing.