BEIJING China will increase military spending by 12.2 percent this year to 808.23 billion yuan ($131.57 billion), the government said on Wednesday, partly to beef up coastal and air defenses and to develop more high-tech weapons.
The government announced its spending plan for the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA) at the opening of parliament's annual meeting. The increase builds on a nearly unbroken run of double-digit hikes in the defense budget for the past two decades.
"We will comprehensively enhance the revolutionary nature of the Chinese armed forces, further modernize them and upgrade their performance, and continue to raise their deterrence and combat capabilities in the information age," Premier Li Keqiang told the largely rubber-stamp legislature.
Li added that China would "strengthen research on national defense and the development of new- and high-technology weapons and equipment" and "enhance border, coastal and air defenses".
China's military spending is now second only to that of the United States, allowing Beijing to create a modern force that is projecting power deep into the disputed waters of the East and South China Seas.
Much military spending takes place outside the budget, however, and many experts estimate real outlays are closer to $200 billion. The U.S. Defense Department's base budget for fiscal 2014 is $526.8 billion.
At a time when Washington has stepped up its military presence in the region as part of a strategic "pivot" toward Asia, China is building new submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles, and has tested emerging technology aimed at destroying missiles in mid-air.
It carried out the first test flight of a stealth fighter jet in 2011 and has put a refurbished aircraft carrier to sea.
Nevertheless, experts say it could be decades before China's military is a match for America's armed forces.
David Helvey, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, told a U.S. Senate committee hearing on Tuesday that the Pentagon was seeking to build "healthy" ties with China's military, but said Beijing needed to be more transparent about its armed forces buildup.
"We remain concerned about a lack of transparency regarding China's growing military and its increasingly assertive behavior in the maritime domain," Helvey said.
China has repeatedly said the world has nothing to fear from its military spending, which it says is needed for legitimate defensive purposes.
Its neighbors, however, have become increasingly nervous about Beijing's expanding military, and the latest double-digit rise could reinforce disquiet in the region.
China and Japan have locked horns over uninhabited rocky islands each claims in the East China Sea.
Beijing also claims 90 percent of the 3.5 million sq km (1.35 million sq mile) South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan claim parts of those waters.
The United States last month said it was concerned that China's maritime claims in the South China Sea were an effort to gain creeping control of oceans in the Asia-Pacific region.
($1 = 6.1430 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Michael Martina, Li Hui and Ben Blanchard. Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington. Editing by Dean Yates)