BEIJING -- Newly installed Chinese leader Xi Jinping faces a key test of his campaign to end corruption and reduce extravagance when outlays for the politically influential military are announced Tuesday after two decades of whopping defense budget increases.
The opening of the national legislature's annual session, and the release of the coming year's military spending, will provide an indication of how Xi and his cohort of new leaders are consolidating power three months into office. With its deep roots in the Communist Party and heavy representation in the legislature, the military always looms large in that political calculus.
The legislature's spokeswoman defended booming military spending Monday, saying the vast investment has contributed to global peace and stability, though she did not announce the coming year's percentage increase, as usually has been done on the eve the legislature's opening.
Following years of double-digit increases, the amount of this year's increase will be a barometer of the complicated relationship between the party leadership and the military. A big boost would show Xi wants robust backing for the People's Liberation Army at a time when China has strident territorial disputes with neighbors and wants to reduce U.S. influence in the region. A smaller increase would show that Xi feels he has strong military backing without the need to pander to its recent demands for ever-larger outlays.
Growth in the military budget should match or exceed last year's rate, if only to keep up with rising inflation, said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. However, he said recent prohibitions on lavish entertainment and perks such as luxury cars should ensure a larger chunk of spending goes to training and weapons development.
"Of course, military development and research in science and technology also require a larger budget, but the growth of military spending must be stable," he said.
The NPC session itself will offer an additional opportunity to assess relations between the military and the 59-year-old Xi, who is the son of a famed revolutionary general and who served briefly in uniform as aide-de-camp to the defense minister some three decades ago.
Xi, who already heads the chairmanship of the party's Central Military Commission, has been generally seen as more agreeable to the military than his predecessor Hu, and has been conspicuous in his attentions to the PLA since taking over as party chief. Those have included visits to naval, air force, infantry and missile bases.
Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for the National People's Congress, said the overall military budget would be released Tuesday. She said China maintained a strictly defensive military posture and cited U.N. peacekeeping missions and anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden as examples of Beijing's contribution to world peace and stability.
"As such a big country, China's inability to ensure its own security would not be good news for the world," Fu said. "Our strengthening of our defense is to defend ourselves, to defend security and peace, and not to threaten other countries."
Approving the budget is among the key tasks of the session, which this year will see new leaders placed into top government positions after they were elevated within the party at November's Communist Party congress.
Xi, the new party leader, will take over from Hu Jintao as president, and become head of the government's Central Military Commission, as part of China's once-a-decade power transition. In addition, the session approves top Cabinet appointments such as the defense minister.
Chinese defense spending has grown substantially each year for more than two decades, and last year rose 11.2 percent to 670.2 billion yuan ($106.4 billion), an increase of about 67 billion yuan.
Only the United States spends more on defense. Its military budget last year was estimated from $1 trillion to $1.4 trillion.
China's defense spending is a perennial concern for Washington and China's neighbors, who worry that a more powerful and assertive Beijing could upset the U.S.-dominated balance of power in Asia and potentially spark a conflict.
In a standoff between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, ships and planes from each side have repeatedly confronted each other in recent months. China's feuds with Vietnam and the Philippines over territory in the South China Sea have also flared up in recent months, while Beijing has been unnerved by the U.S. military's renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific, including plans to station marines in northern Australia on training missions.
Outside concerns about China's military buildup are also fed by doubts over the reliability of the defense budget figure, which is widely believed to exclude foreign military purchases and other items. In its 2012 report on China's military, the Pentagon estimated actual spending of $120-180 billion in 2011, well above China's official figure that year of $91.5 billion.
While the defense budget is all but certain to rise again this year, the military will be under pressure to cut down on waste and corruption.
One especially feisty and widely quoted military commentator, Gen. Luo Yuan, wrote on his microblog recently that wasting funds on expensive cars and flashy but useless projects would ultimately be the PLA's downfall.
"Units that waste money on projects to boost their image and reputation, or that quest for the grandiose and exotic, are in fact frittering away our combat effectiveness," Luo wrote.
In the meantime, the tense situation with Japan and others will ensure that the military continues to enjoy an exalted status, particularly when it comes to funding.
"The more serious the situation becomes, the higher status the military will enjoy and that includes military, social and political status," Ni said.
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