China says defence budget to rise to $173bn

Beijing - China's defence budget will rise 8% to 1.1 trillion yuan ($173 billion, 2 trillion rand) this year as the country is preparing to launch its second aircraft carrier, integrating stealth fighters into its air force and fielding an array of advanced missiles able to attack air and sea targets at vast distances.

The figure released in a report on Monday to the ceremonial National People's Congress is an increase from last year, when finance ministry officials told the Associated Press the budget was rising 7% to 1.044 trillion yuan ($151 billion).

Years of double-digit percentage growth have given China the world's second-largest defence budget after the United States, which is in a class of its own with a proposed budget of $716 billion for next year.

"We will stick to the Chinese path in strengthening our armed forces, advance all aspects of military training and war preparedness," Premier Li Keqiang said as he read a report to nearly 3 000 delegates at the Great Hall of the People.

The armed forces will "firmly and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests", Li said.

2 million troops

China has the world's largest military by number of personnel, but Li said the country had "basically completed" the target of reducing the size of the armed forces by 300 000 troops. That would leave the military at around 2 million troops.

But China's defence spending as a share of GDP and the budget remains lower than that of other major nations, Zhang Yesui, a spokesperson for the legislature, said on Sunday.

Analysts don't consider China's publicly announced defence spending to be entirely accurate since defence equipment projects account for a significant amount of "off book" expenditures.

Much of China's energies have been focused on what is known as anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD operations that seek to scare the US Navy and other forces far from China's shores.

China's navy has been training rigorously on the Liaoning aircraft carrier, which was bought from Ukraine and heavily refurbished. In April, it launched a 50 000-ton carrier built entirely on its own based on the Ukrainian model.

It will join the improved Type 093B Shang class nuclear-powered attack submarine equipped with anti-ship missiles - considered only slightly inferior to the US Navy's mainstay Los Angeles class boats - and the Type 055 guided-missile destroyers at the forefront of China's naval technology.

Such vessels stand to alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific where the US Navy has long been dominant and regional rivals such as Japan and India are stepping up their presence. Most navy ships already have anti-ship cruise missiles with longer ranges than those of their US counterparts.

'Leaner and meaner'

China's navy is also relying on numerical superiority to boost its influence.

All three of China's sea forces; the navy, coast guard and maritime militia, are the largest of their types by number of ships, allowing them to "maintain presence and influence in vital seas," according to Andrew S. Erickson of the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute.

All three fleets are growing "leaner and meaner" due to a greater emphasis on technical sophistication, Erickson writes, adding that the US also anticipates facing a Chinese submarine fleet twice its number, though less technologically advanced.

In the air, China last month said it had begun equipping combat units with its J-20 stealth fighter jet, the country's answer to fifth-generation jets such as the U.S. F-22 and F-35. No less impressive is China's missile technology, particularly the DF-21D built to take out an aircraft carrier while underway, and a new air-to-air missile with a range of some 400 km that could attack assets such as early warning aircraft and refuelling tankers crucial to US Air Force operations.

In a further display of sophistication, China in early February said it successfully tested a mid-course anti-missile defence system, deploying similar technology to that used to destroy a defunct Chinese satellite in 2007.

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