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Amid Regional Worries, China Boosts Defense Spending

China has announced another double-digit increase in defense spending, amid regional worries about its growing military assertiveness.

Premier Li Keqiang announced the move along with a wide range of other policy plans Wednesday at an annual meeting of China's ceremonial National People's Congress.

Premier Li says the defense budget will be raised by 12.2 percent this year to help modernize China's armed forces and develop more high-tech weapons.

"This year, keeping in mind the (Communist) Party's goal of strengthening the armed forces under new circumstances, 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."

The announcement immediately drew a statement of concern from Japan, which is among many Asian countries alarmed at China's rapidly growing military.

Independent Australia-based consultant Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, tells VOA that Beijing's military budget is likely much higher than what is reported.

"Research and development, and sometimes missile development - analysts believe they're not included in the (official) budget, so China has been underplaying what it's doing."

In total, China says it will spend over $130 billion on defense in 2014 - a figure that, while large, would still only be one-sixth the size of U.S. military spending.

Overall for 2014, Premier Li said China's growth rate will hold steady at "around 7.5 percent."

Li told the NPC delegates that "reform is the top priority" for the Communist Party. He said this will be accomplished in part through greater transparency, innovation, agricultural modernization and structural adjustments.

Louis Kuijs ((loo-ee kahls), chief China economist at Hong Kong's Royal Bank of Scotland, tells VOA that while China's leaders know reforms are necessary, it still insists that growth and development are important for their survival.

"There's a quite a bit of emphasis on the quality of life and living standards being the ultimate goal of economic policy and that I think is useful and is [in] line with a gradual evolution we have seen over time in China."

In recent years, China has faced a slowdown following three decades of rapid growth that saw it become the world's second largest economy, behind the United States.

Beijing has also faced rising discontent among its citizens over rampant government corruption, worsening pollution, and its heavy-handed policies on ethnic minorities.

In a possible sign of those frustrations, security forces hauled away an unknown number of pamphlet-distributing protesters in Tiananmen Square as the parliament opened.

Security forces quickly picked up the pamphlets and ordered those nearby to delete pictures from their cameras, leaving it unclear what the protesters were advocating.

The meeting comes days after masked attackers killed 29 people at a train station in the southwest city of Kunming. The attack was blamed on militants from the restive Xinjiang region, where ethnic Uighurs say they are suffering from government repression.

The delegates at the People's Congress held a brief moment of silence for the Kunming victims at the opening session. In his report, Premier Li promised China would "crack down hard on violent crimes of terrorism" and "safeguard China's national security."

Mr. Li also vowed to "declare war" on pollution. He called the choking smog that has commonly blanketed Chinese cities "nature's red-light warning against inefficient and blind development" and said it will be fought "with the same determination we battled poverty."

To do this, he said a cap will be put on the country's total energy consumption. A separate government report Wednesday said China will increase spending on energy conservation and environmental protection by 7.1 percent in 2014.

The NPC is made up of nearly 3,000 handpicked delegates from provinces and regions across China, who meet every year in order to formally approve policies handed down by the ruling Communist Party.

(VOA's Victor Beattie contributed to this report)

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