BEIJING -- China's finance ministry said Sunday that the country's defense budget this year will top 1 trillion yuan ($145 billion) for the first time, after the exact figure was initially kept out of public documents released at the start of the country's annual legislative sessions.
The ministry put the figure at 1.044 trillion yuan ($151 billion), a seven percent increase from last year, marking the smallest percentage annual growth rate this century.
A ministry information officer told The Associated Press the exact figure had already been released to the almost 3,000 delegates to the National People's Congress. But he didn't say why it had been withheld from the government budget report, where it usually appears. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
On Saturday, congress spokeswoman Fu Ying told reporters the budget would increase around seven percent in 2017 over last year.
The U.S. and others have routinely asked China to be more forthcoming about the goals of its ambitious military modernization program, under which the budget has grown by double-digit percentages for most of the past two decades. Other observers say actual military spending could be considerably higher because China doesn't include certain items such as the purchase of armaments from overseas.
China has the world's second-largest defense budget, although it is still only about one-quarter of what the U.S. spends. China has never provided a breakdown on how the money is spent, although it says most goes to improving living conditions for the troops.
Military analyst Ni Lexiong at Shanghai's University of Politics and Law said the modest growth rate of 7 percent demonstrates China's goodwill in avoiding conflicts and supporting regional stability.
It "shows China's sincerity of peace to the world," he added.
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