China's Xi assumes new role overseeing military reform

BEIJING, March 15 Sat Mar 15, 2014 4:19am EDT

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BEIJING, March 15 (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken on a new role overseeing a group in charge of deepening military reform, state media said on Saturday, adding to the list of new bodies Xi is taking charge of in his rapid consolidation of power.

Xi is already head of the military in his role as chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.

Official news agency Xinhua said Xi had chaired the first meeting of the new leading group for deepening reform on national defence and the military, in the first mention of the group by state media.

Xi has already taken charge of similar bodies overseeing economic reform and internet security, besides running the new national security commission.

During the military meeting, Xi "stressed the country's military reform should be guided by the objective of building a strong army", Xinhua said.

Xi's speech, full of turgid communist phrases, gave no specifics of how China will modernise its military.

China this month announced its biggest rise in military spending in three years, a strong signal that Beijing is not about to back away from its growing assertiveness in Asia, especially in disputed waters.

The government said it would increase the defence budget by 12.2 percent this year to 808.23 billion yuan ($131.57 billion), as China seeks to develop more high-tech weapons and to beef up coastal and air defences.

The increase follows a nearly unbroken run of double-digit hikes in the Chinese defence budget, second only to the United States in size, for the past two decades.

The 2014 defence budget is Xi's first since becoming president last year, and the spending hike appears to reflect his desire to build what he calls a strong, rejuvenated China.

Xi also recently urged China's military leaders to speed efforts to get the country's sole aircraft carrier combat-ready.

Aside from the carrier, China is developing a range of high-tech weaponry, from stealth fighters to systems to shoot down satellites. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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