China increases military spending in face of 'escalating' threats
China announced Sunday an increase in its military spending while warning of "escalating" threats from abroad, at a meeting of its rubber-stamp parliament that is set to hand Xi Jinping a third term as president.
The increase in the world's second-largest defence budget came as China's leaders said it would aim for economic growth of around five percent for the coming year -- one of its lowest in decades.
As the country unveiled the 1.55 trillion yuan ($225 billion) budget, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang told delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) that "external attempts to suppress and contain China are escalating".
"The armed forces should intensify military training and preparedness across the board," he said.
The military, he added, must "devote greater energy to training under combat conditions, and... strengthen military work in all directions and domains".
China's defence spending still pales in comparison with the United States, which has allotted over $800 billion for its military this year, but analysts have said much more money is spent than the officially announced sums.
Experts expect few surprises at this week's carefully choreographed NPC, with thousands of politicians flown in from across China to vote on laws and personnel changes pre-approved by the ruling Communist Party (CCP).
Sunday's conservative growth goals followed China posting just three percent growth last year, missing its stated target of around 5.5 percent by a wide margin as the economy strained under the impact of strict Covid-19 containment policies and a property crisis.
"Under the strong leadership of the Party Central Committee, we carried out Covid-19 response and pursued economic and social development in an effective and well-coordinated way," the government report, delivered by Li at the opening of the parliament, said.
"Overcoming great difficulties and challenges, we succeeded in maintaining overall stable economic performance."
- Xi dominant -
Also top of the NPC's agenda will be Friday's norm-busting reappointment of Xi as president, after he locked in another five years as head of the party and the military -- the two more significant leadership positions in Chinese politics -- in an October congress.
Since then, the 69-year-old Xi's leadership has faced unexpected challenges and scrutiny, with mass protests over his zero-Covid policy and its subsequent abandonment that saw a deadly coronavirus surge.
But those issues are almost certain to be avoided at this week's Beijing conclave, which will also see the unveiling of a Xi confidant and former Shanghai party chief as the new premier.
Xi enjoys a "pretty strong" position at the top of the party that makes him virtually unchallengeable, Alfred Muluan Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told AFP.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said Xi now had an opportunity to flaunt his response to the pressure created by last year's unrest.
"He acted decisively when the protests included calls for him and the CCP to step down. He quashed them and removed the basic cause," he told AFP.
Delegates to the NPC -- and to the concurrent "political consultative conference" (CPPCC) which began on Saturday -- will also discuss a range of issues from the economic recovery to improved sex education in schools, according to state media reports.
The meetings serve as a forum for attendees to present pet projects, but they have little say in broader questions of how China is run.