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By Keith B. Richburg,

Washington Post, Sunday March 4

BEIJING — Beijing’s Communist rulers plan to boost military spending by 11 percent this year, passing the $100 billion mark for the first time and renewing questions about China’s long-term intentions.

The new spending plan comes as China’s neighbors are unnerved by the country’s growing assertiveness in pressing territorial claims and as the Obama administration has announced a strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region.

The new defense spending plans, outlined at the start of the annual session of China’s largely rubber-stamp legislature, would bring China’s official military budget to 670 billion yuan. That would be the equivalent of $106 billion at the current exchange rate of 6.3 renminbi to the dollar. That amounts to an increase of $10.6 billion over 2011.

Defense analysts outside of China say the real outlay on defense could be considerably higher, when other areas, such as spending on outer space, are included.

The People’s Liberation Army has seen years of double-digit budget increases, which have helped transform China’s military into a force now capable of projecting power throughout the region and, increasingly, to faraway conflict zones such as the Somali coast, where pirates have harassed Chinese vessels and crews.

China has also embarked on a program to build and acquire more sophisticated, modern weaponry, including a new home-built J-20 stealth fighter jet, which made a test flight last year, and China’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbished, unfinished Soviet-era vessel purchased in 1998 from Ukraine.

The defense budget for 2011 was $91.5 billion, which was a 12.7 percent increase over the 2010 budget of $78 billion.

Li Zhaoxing, the spokesman for China’s legislature, known as the National People’s Congress, deflected a reporter’s questions about the need for the large increase in military spending. He said that “China is committed to the path of peaceful development” and “follows a defense policy that is peaceful in nature.”

Li said that China’s defense spending as a share of its gross domestic product was 1.28 percent in 2011 and that the military budgets of countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom exceeded 2 percent of GDP. However, some outside sources, such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, put China’s actual military spending as a percentage of GDP at higher than 2 percent. Most outside analysts use a broader view of defense spending and include such areas as space activities.

Some analysts have projected that by 2015, China’s military spending will surpass that of all 12 of its Asia-Pacific neighbors.

That kind of spending is causing jitters in the region, particularly as China has become increasingly assertive over long-standing territorial claims. In the oil-rich South China Sea, China is involved in a dispute over a small island chain also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Relations between China and Japan soured after a 2010 incident involving a Chinese fishing boat captain who rammed a Japanese patrol boat in waters around islands — called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China — also claimed by both sides.

China and India are also involved in a long-running border dispute involving Arunachal Pradesh, which China refers to as Southern Tibet.

Several regional countries, including India, Indonesia and Vietnam, have begun increasing their military capabilities in response to China’s increased military spending and growing assertiveness. Some longtime U.S. allies, such as the Philippines, have appealed for a stronger American presence in the region.

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.