China will raise defence spending "around seven percent" this year as it guards against "outside meddling" in its disputed regional territorial claims, a top official said Saturday, in an apparent reference to Washington.
Just days after US President Donald Trump outlined plans to raise American military spending by around 10 percent, a spokeswoman for China's parliament told reporters that future Chinese expenditures will depend on US actions in the region.
"We call for a peaceful settlement through dialogue and consultation (of the territorial disputes). At the same time we need the ability to safeguard our sovereignty and interests and rights," spokeswoman Fu Ying said at a press conference ahead of the rubber-stamp parliament session.
"In particular, we need to guard against outside meddling in the disputes."
The annual press briefing comes a day ahead of Sunday's opening of the National People's Congress (NPC).
Fu did not specify what "meddling" she was referring to, but Beijing's increasingly assertive stance towards its claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea have stirred alarm in the region and prompted criticism from Washington.
The planned spending increase is lower than last year, when the government said 2016 outlays would grow by 7.6 percent.
- Escalating tensions -
The 2016 figure marked the first time in six years that spending growth did not rise into double figures.
China is engaged in a decades-long build up and modernisation of its once-backward armed forces as it seeks military clout commensurate with its economic might.
But its military capabilities remain modest compared to the United States, Fu said, adding that concerns about the country's military buildup are unwarranted.
"China has never caused harm to anyone, to any country," she said.
But recent reports that Beijing may be militarising artificial islands in the South China Sea have raised concerns in Washington, which has long argued China's activities in the region threaten freedom of navigation through the strategically vital waterways, sending ships and aircraft to pass close to the growing islands.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have contested Beijing's claims.
Recent satellite imagery indicates China is completing structures intended to house surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) on a series of such artificial landmasses, the Washington think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said last week.
Future trends in the region "will depend on US intentions vis-a-vis the region and US activities (which) to a certain extent set the barometer for the situation here," Fu said.
"Probably fundamentally the United States is concerned that China may catch up with the United States in terms of capability, but we are a developing country. There is a huge gap between China and the US in capability."
Chinese state media said recently that China was testing the latest version of its fifth-generation stealth fighter, part of a campaign to end the West's monopoly on the world's most advanced warplanes.
China also for the first time sent its sole aircraft carrier into the Pacific for exercise in December, according to Chinese reports.
Barthelemy Courmont, a senior Research Fellow at the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) said it was understandable that a modernising China would seek more advanced armed forces.
"But this development also reflects Beijing's ambition to impose its supremacy over Asia by giving itself the means of being a credible power," he said.
He warned, however, that the territorial tensions were leading to a "senseless arms race" in the region.
"It's often in reaction to China's spending increases that neighbouring countries also decide to strengthen their military capacities," he said.