BEIJING — China said Tuesday its defence spending would jump 17.6 percent this year but insisted the rise was moderate, amid a flare-up in tensions with the United States over Beijing's growing military muscle.
Military spending in 2008 will reach 417.8 billion yuan (57.2 billion dollars at the end-2007 exchange rate), a spokesman for China's parliament told reporters ahead of the legislature's annual session beginning Wednesday.
As Jiang Enzhu announced the figures, he also renewed a warning to rival Taiwan that its plans for a March 22 referendum on United Nations membership was putting an already uneasy peace between the two sides at risk.
Nevertheless, Jiang said the budget rise, following a similar jump in 2007, was not excessive, with the spending coming off a low base and helping to boost soldiers' incomes as well as beef up the military's high-tech capabilities.
"In recent years the Chinese government has moderately increased its spending on national defence on the basis of sustained, steady and fast economic growth and rapid build-up of government revenues," Jiang said.
Jiang said China's military spending was just 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product last year, compared with 4.6 percent in the United States and three percent in Britain.
The release of the budget figures came after the Pentagon published a report that expressed concern about China's growing military might and said a lack of transparency from Beijing posed risks to regional and international stability.
The Pentagon said China's military spending in 2007 was between 97 and 139 billion dollars, well in excess of Beijing's official budgeted figure of 45 billion dollars.
The Pentagon further raised concerns over China's development of cruise and ballistic missiles, its testing of an anti-satellite weapon last year and an apparent rise in cyber-espionage emanating from the Asian nation.
"China's expanding and improving military capabilities are changing East Asian military balances; improvements in China's strategic capabilities have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region," the report said.
China's foreign ministry reacted angrily to the Pentagon's claims, saying it was a "serious distortion of facts".
"China is resolutely against this and has made solemn representations to the United States... this will do no good to our bilateral relations," ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters.
"We urge the United States to drop its Cold War mentality."
Japan also said on Tuesday that the international community remained concerned about a lack of transparency by China's military.
The Pentagon report warned that although the situation in the Taiwan Strait remained stable, the balance of military power was continuing to shift in China's favour.
In response, foreign ministry spokesman Qin bluntly told the United States to stop selling weapons to Taiwan and to end all military ties with the island.
Parliamentary spokesman Jiang, meanwhile, warned Taiwan would pay a "heavy price" if its referendum on joining the UN was endorsed by the public.
"We will make well our preparations and firmly curb the dangerous activities of Taiwan independence forces," Jiang said.
China and Taiwan split following the end of a civil war in 1949 and Beijing insists the two sides must eventually reunify, by force if necessary.
China's parliament, the National People's Congress, will formally endorse the 2008 military budget during its annual session, which will last until March 18.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to give an annual government work report to the parliament on Wednesday, during which official economic growth and inflation forecasts for the year are expected to be announced.
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