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China defence budget to rise

BEIJING, Mar 4 – China on Thursday announced its smallest defence budget increase in years and sought to soothe foreign concerns that its rapid military modernisation posed a threat to other countries.

The proposed military budget for 2010 is 532.1 billion yuan (77.9 billion dollars), up 7.5 percent from actual defence spending in 2009, a government spokesman said.

The figure breaks a string of double-digit increases going back many years that had raised mounting concern overseas about China\’s military intentions.

"China is committed to peace," Li Zhaoxing, spokesman for the National People\’s Congress (NPC), said in unveiling the figure.

"The sole purpose of China\’s military strength is to protect China\’s sovereignty and territorial integrity," he told a news conference.

The figure was contained in a budgetary report submitted to the congress, China\’s rubber-stamp parliament, Li said. The annual NPC session opens on Friday.

Li, a former foreign minister, said the bulk of the spending increase would go toward improving conditions for China\’s 2.3 million servicemen and women and for the "revolution" in China\’s military, a phrase referring to modernisation.

Experts on China\’s military said the slower rate of increase was likely aimed at heading off any possible domestic criticism of the military enjoying continued big budget hikes at a time of relative economic hardship.

"At least from a symbolic level the message is that in tough economic times the military has to tighten its belt too," said Tai Ming Cheung, a researcher at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

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Cheung added the lower figure could also double as a symbolic gesture to Taiwan to reflect easing tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

"There has been an improvement in cross-strait relations and a reduction in security tensions so they may offer this as a token olive branch," he said.

China has claimed the self-ruled island as its own ever since they split at the end of a civil war six decades ago and does not rule out the possibility of using force in reclaiming it.

But ties have warmed dramatically since the 2008 election of more China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou.

Tensions have however emerged between China and the United States after Washington approved the sale of 6.4 billion dollars in weapons to Taipei.

Military experts say the budget figures only partially reflect actual military spending, with some key defence spending programmes kept separate from the official budget.

During the 60th National Day celebrations last October, China unveiled the fruits of its modernisation push by parading a range of sophisticated homegrown weapons including missiles, fighter jets, high-tech radar and other support systems.

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