Beijing will spend $210 billion on defence amid high government debt and coronavirus as ruling Communist Party sees economic growth of "over 6 percent" this year.

Chinese soldier (C) fires an anti-tank rocket during a live-fire military exercise in Wuzhong, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on July 24, 2019.
Chinese soldier (C) fires an anti-tank rocket during a live-fire military exercise in Wuzhong, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on July 24, 2019. (Reuters)

China has increased its defence spending by 6.8 percent, a slight uptick from last year, amid high government debt and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic impact.

A national budget report issued on Friday said China would spend $210 billion on national defence in the coming year.

That's up from the 6.6 percent increase last year to $180 billion, the lowest percentage increase in at least two decades.

The military budget has dipped during periods of slower economic growth, but has also been dropping steadily from the double-digit percentage increases over years as the increasingly powerful military matures and rapid expansion of what is already the world's second largest defence budget is no longer required.

China's top economic official also announced a healthy growth target for the nation on Friday and its plans to become a more self-reliant technology leader amid tension with Washington and Europe over trade, Hong Kong and human rights.

READ MORE: China to focus on tech autonomy at this year's Congress

Second-largest defence budget

The double-digit percentage increases of years past have given China the second-largest defence budget in the world behind the US. 

With three million troops, the world's largest standing military has added aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and stealth fighters to its arsenal.

The government says most of the spending increases go toward improving pay and other conditions for troops while observers say the budget omits much of China’s spending on weaponry, most of its developed domestically. 

China's military is largely engineered to maintain its threat to use force to bring Taiwan under its control, although it has also grown more assertive in the South China Sea, the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

READ MORE: Global arms race escalates with China becoming the second biggest exporter

Only country to grow in 2020

The ruling Communist Party is aiming for economic growth of "over 6 percent" as it rebounds from the coronavirus, Premier Li Keqiang said in a speech on Friday at China's annual session of parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC).

The party is shifting from fighting the virus that emerged in central China in late 2019 back to its longer-term goals of becoming a global competitor in profitable technologies and promoting self-sustaining growth based on domestic consumer spending instead of trade and investment.

China became the only major country to grow last year, eking out a multi-decade low 2.3 percent expansion after shutting down most of its economy to fight the coronavirus. 

The world's second-largest economy grew by 6.5 percent over a year earlier in the final quarter of 2020 while the United States, Europe and Japan struggled with renewed virus outbreaks.

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Interference by external forces

China also said it will "resolutely guard against and deter" interference by external forces in Hong Kong's affairs.

Li said China will ensure the implementation of law and enforcement mechanisms for Hong Kong to safeguard national security, while reaffirming China's commitment to continue to "fully and faithfully" implement "One Country, Two Systems."

He also vowed the country will work to achieve an appropriate birth rate and raise the statutory retirement age "in a phased manner."

"We will implement the national strategy for addressing population aging, and improve the population services system with a focus on elderly care and child care," Li said.

READ MORE: Protesting crowds gather outside Hong Kong court after dissidents charged

Taiwan's independence

Chinese premier said that Beijing stands by the "one China" principle, which states that Taiwan is part of China.

China remains committed "to promoting the peaceful growth of relations across the Taiwan Strait and China's reunification", he told the roughly 3,000 delegates at Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, has increased its military activity near the island in recent months, responding to what it calls "collusion" between Taipei and Washington, Taiwan's main international backer and arms supplier.

READ MORE: Chinese bombers, jets 'breach' Taiwan's air defence zone

Source: TRTWorld and agencies