BEIJING (AP) -- China on Saturday announced a 7.1% increase in defense spending in 2022 to $229 billion, continuing years of robust spending on its increasingly powerful military that is challenging the U.S. armed forces' dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
China has the world's second-largest defense budget after the U.S., allowing it to maintain the largest standing military, with 3 million personnel and an arsenal of advanced weaponry, including two aircraft carriers with more on the way, stealth fighters, an advanced missile force and nuclear-powered submarines.
This year's increase exceeds the 6.8% boost from last year, showing China's determination to maintain the drive to expand and modernize its armed forces despite high levels of government debt and a slowing economy, partly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
By contrast, the U.S. increased defense spending by about 2% this year to $768.2 billion.
The Chinese government says most of the spending increases will go toward improving welfare for troops. Observers say the budget omits much of China's spending on weaponry, most of which is developed domestically.
The People's Liberation Army exercises a strong political role as the military branch of the ruling Communist Party, overseen by President and party leader Xi Jinping, who heads the party and government armed forces commissions.
The military is largely designed to maintain its threat to use force to bring self-governing Taiwan under its control, although it has also grown more assertive in the South China Sea, the western Pacific, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.
In his address to Saturday's opening session of the ceremonial legislature, the National People's Congress, Premier Li Keqiang said China would "fully implement Xi Jinping's thinking on strengthening the armed forces and the military strategy for the new era ... and strengthen party leadership and party building in all aspects of the military."
Li indicated no change in China's approach to Taiwan, which it threatens to annex by force if necessary.
China will "advance peaceful growth of relations across the Taiwan Strait and the reunification of China," Li said. "We firmly oppose any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence and firmly oppose foreign interference."
Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparked conjecture that China might be more disposed to use force against Taiwan if it sensed a lack of resolution on the part of the U.S. and its allies.
During a meeting between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing early last month, Xi endorsed Russia's objections to further NATO expansion and Putin backed China's claim to the self-governing island democracy of Taiwan.
On Feb. 24, the day Russian forces entered Ukraine, China flew eight jet fighters and a reconnaissance propeller plane through Taiwan's air defense identification zone, prompting the island's air force to scramble jets and issue warnings.
At a security conference in Munich on Feb. 19, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of the threat of a potentially emboldened China.
"If Ukraine is endangered, the shock will echo around the world," Johnson said. "And those echoes will be heard in East Asia, will be heard in Taiwan. People would draw the conclusion that aggression pays, and that might is right."
And on Thursday, the top U.S. Air Force commander in the Pacific said he was keeping close tabs on China's military movements.
"I'm watching them like a hawk," Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach said at a symposium in Florida. "I haven't seen anything so far, but that doesn't mean they haven't talked about it internally and doesn't mean that they won't try something."