China says military spending to rise 12.6 percent this year

China on Friday announced a 12.6 percent increase in military spending, but tried to calm fears that an anti-secession bill set for approval this weekend could set the stage for an attack on rival Taiwan. The rise in military spending adds to a series of double-digit annual increases as Beijing modernizes its forces to back up threats to invade Taiwan, which the communist mainland claims as its territory. The lead-up to the opening of the National People's Congress on Saturday has been dominated by rumblings over a proposed anti-secession law. No details of the law have been released, but Taiwanese leaders say it could serve as a pretext for an attack on the island. A parliament spokesman rejected such fears. "This law is not at all a law on the use of force against Taiwan, let alone a war mobilization order," Jiang Enzhu said at a news conference, where he announced details of China's 2005 military budget. He did not elaborate. The NPC is largely powerless and usually approves legislation already decided by communist leaders. But it serves as a tool for keeping Beijing in touch with a fast-changing society and a stage for publicizing national goals and measures such as the anti-secession law. Also Friday, the government announced that former President Jiang Zemin submitted his resignation from his last official post as chairman of the government's ceremonial Central Military Commission, completing a long-planned retirement. The step marked the symbolic end to a transfer of power to a younger generation of leaders that began in 2002. The NPC is expected to name President Hu Jintao to replace Jiang on the panel. Hu already has succeeded Jiang as chairman of a parallel party commission that runs the military. The military budget will total 247.7 billion yuan (US$29.9 billion; Ђ23 billion), according to the parliament spokesman Jiang, who is no relation to the former president. China has announced double-digit increases in military spending nearly every year for more than a decade as it modernizes the 2.5 million-member People's Liberation Army, the world's biggest fighting force. With unreported sums for weapons acquisition and other confidential expenditures added in, China's total military spending is believed to be as much as several times the announced figure. This year, the additional spending will help pay for added training and more modern weapons, Jiang said. The PLA also needs to spend more on pensions as it carries out plans to cut 200,000 troops from its ranks in a campaign to create a smaller, more technologically sophisticated force, he said. Beijing has spent billions of dollars on acquiring Russian-made fighter jets, submarines and other high-tech weapons to extend the reach of the antiquated PLA. Despite that, Jiang insisted that military spending was still "very low" as a percentage of China's economy. "China's national defense budget is at a relatively low level, compared with the defense budgets of other major countries," he said. China and Taiwan split in 1949 amid civil war, but Beijing claims the island as its territory and has threatened to invade if it tries to make its de facto independence permanent or puts off talks on unification. In the Taiwanese capital, lawmakers on Friday raised a clamor in their parliament over the proposed anti-secession law, chanting slogans to denounce legislation they said could severely strain relations between the rivals. Several lawmakers wore headbands that said "Against Anti-Secession Law" and chanted "Save Taiwan and say no to annexation" on the floor of the chamber. Jiang accused Taiwanese activists of misrepresenting the proposed law. "It will be futile for independence forces to distort this law to mislead international public opinion," Jiang said. Chinese officials say the law was prompted by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's plans for a referendum on a new constitution, which Beijing worries could include a declaration of formal independence. "Taiwan independence forces and their adventurous moves have seriously threatened China's state sovereignty and territorial integrity," Jiang said. Also on the agenda for this year's session: -Premier Wen Jiabao is to lay out government goals for 2005 on Saturday, while finance officials announce the national budget. -Finance, court and other officials are to announce economic development and other plans. -Delegates are to discuss measures to fight corruption, improve life in China's poor countryside and protect an environment ravaged by population pressure and economic growth.

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