BEIJING -- China is stepping up its defense spending at a quicker rate this year, according to a budget unveiled on Monday at the annual National People's Congress. The move suggests President Xi Jinping is intent on building a military that can rival U.S. forces, heightening the risk of a renewed global arms race.
The country has budgeted 1.1 trillion yuan ($174 billion) for defense this year, 62.5 billion yuan more than in 2017. This 8.1% increase will go mainly toward equipment, training and improving the welfare of personnel, according to Chen Zhou, research fellow at China's Academy of Military Science. The budget also marks the first acceleration in defense spending growth since 2014.
Xi vowed last autumn that China's military would become a first-rate force by the middle of this century. As part of this push, Beijing looks to implement technological improvements that will increase the military's overall strategic capabilities and expand its range.
The country has made significant headway of late enhancing its missile capabilities and developing the navy and air force, two branches key to challenging the U.S. in military might. In February, China officially deployed its J-20 homegrown stealth fighter, and acknowledged for the first time that cutting-edge Su-35 fighters, imported from Russia, had taken part in military exercises.
The country's DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, with a range that puts the U.S. mainland in reach, is expected to be deployed this year. The rocket is capable of carrying multiple warheads, making it difficult to intercept, according to military experts.
At the same time, China is ramping up military activity far from its shores. Last month, one of the country's largest amphibious transport docks made a 25-day, 8,000km journey from the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea to the western Pacific Ocean as part of long-distance naval exercises. Chinese fighter and bomber jets have become a common sight over the western Pacific and a wide strait separating two islands in Okinawa. Japan has scrambled jets when these aircraft have drawn too close to its territory.
In a speech Monday at the country's annual legislative session, Premier Li Keqiang said China must continue on its path to greater military strength, enhancing training and preparedness to safeguard national interests. Maintaining access to crucial sea lanes carrying resources and food is both an economic and a defense imperative for the world's No. 2 economy. When a U.S. aircraft carrier docked in Vietnam on Monday for the first time since war between the two countries ended, media controlled by China's Communist Party warned that China could militarize the disputed Spratly Islands overnight were any threat to emerge in the South China Sea.
China's military buildup appears to be encouraging other powers to spend more on defense, too. U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has proposed increasing defense outlays 7% on the year to $617 billion in the fiscal 2019 budget, the highest figure since 2011. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that his country is developing a number of next-generation weapons, including a cruise missile equipped with a nuclear-powered engine that would give it "practically unlimited" range.
Huang Shouhong, head of China's State Council Research Office, dismissed the notion that China's increased military spending constitutes a threat, noting in a news conference Monday that the country's per-capita defense spending is among the lowest of any leading nation.