China to boost military spending by 8.1%; targets 6.5% GDP growth

05 March 2018

China has announced a military budget of 1.11 trillion yuan ($175 billion) for this coming year, an 8.1 per cent increase on last year.

As the annual meeting of parliament got under way in Beijing today, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, presenting his 'work report'', also set a target of 6.5 per cent growth for the economy.

Premier Li told lawmakers assembled at an annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), that China intended to cut the jobless rate would be cut below 5.5 per cent.

The National People's Congress (NPC) is also expected to remove the two-term presidential limit, enabling Xi Jinping to remain in office indefinitely.

The move, which was long expected but has been controversial even in China, has helped cement Xi's status as the most powerful leader since Chairman Mao Zedong.

Thousands of Chinese legislators at Monday's meeting burst into applause when the plan to scrap the two-term limit was read out to the chamber. The vote on the proposal will take place on 11 March and is expected to be unanimously approved.

The NPC is largely a rubberstamp parliament, endorsing decisions already made by the Communist Party. Its delegates, about 3,000 of them representing all provinces and regions, are technically elected, but in practice, hand-picked by the Party.

The gathering takes place under tight security - known dissidents are routinely removed from the capital before it takes place.

The government has said it will focus on three main goals over the coming year - tackling China's exposure to financial risk, reining in rampant pollution and continuing to combat poverty.

Li stressed that China would focus on building strong naval and air defences, bolstered by the infusion of technology though greater collaboration between domestic military and civilian industry.

China has already inducted the fifth generation J-20 stealth fighters in its arsenal. There have been media reports that China could be building a third aircraft carrier, using a nuclear-powered engine.

Amid concerns about a spiralling trade war with the United States, Li said China's national security environment was undergoing fundamental changes.

He added that China's aspiration to build world-class armed forces would cover ''all aspects of military training and war preparedness,'' so that ''national sovereignty, security and development interests'' could be firmly safeguarded.

In his opening report to parliament, Li said the army must be "strong as stone" in the face of "profound changes in the national security environment".

The increased spending, announced in a budget report, is seen as a good indication of China's strategic ambitions, as it continues to modernise its army - the world's largest - and develop its infrastructure in contested areas like the South China Sea and its Himalayan border regions.

While expected, the spending increase will further unnerve China's regional rivals.

Debt concerns
China is now the world's second-largest economy. After years of rapid growth, millions have been lifted out of poverty and there is a ballooning middle class.

There are also some 100 billionaires in China. Many of them are members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the top advisory body, which is also meeting this week.

But a reliance on borrowing to fuel this growth has led to pressing political concerns about debt risk.

As expected, Li's report said reining in this risk would be a key policy for the coming year, promising to "see that internal risk controls are tightened in financial institutions" and a "serious crackdown on activities that violate the law like illegal fundraising and financial fraud".

This could indicate further action like that taken against insurance giant Anbang, which was last month taken over by insurance regulators.

Li set the growth target - the amount by which the economy is expected to continue expanding - at 6.5 per cent, slightly lower than the 6.9 pr cent growth achieved in 2017.

On the horizon, as China lays out it financial ambitions, is a potential trade war brewing with the US, as the Trump administration pursues its policy of shifting the global balance in trade.

President Donald Trump has already announced steep new tariffs on steel and aluminium imports to address what he calls "very stupid" trade deals, and has threatened further measures targeting Chinese imports specifically.

NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui said on Sunday that while China does not want a trade war "if the US takes actions that hurt Chinese interests, China will not sit idly by".

Li also on Monday issued a fresh warning to Taiwan nationalists, saying Beijing "will never tolerate any separatist schemes or activities for 'Taiwan independence",

Beijing considers self-ruling Taiwan to be a breakaway province that will eventually be part of the country again, though many in Taiwan want a separate nation.

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