May 22 (UPI) -- China announced Friday a 6.6 percent increase in its $178 billion defense budget, down from last year's increase of 7.5 percent.
The announcement was made at the opening of the National People's Congress, the country's national legislature. Despite the slowing of the defense budget's growth, the lowest increase in years, it remains the world's second-largest defense budget, behind that of the United States at $738 billion. China's defense budget remains below 2 percent of its GDP, while that of the United States is 3.4 percent.
Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst, told the Global Times, a publication of the Chinese Communist Party, on Friday that the budget ensures that China's military programs remain unaffected by the COVID-19 virus and can go on as scheduled. The country's economic growth has been impacted by the pandemic, he added.
Some analysts expected a lesser defense budget increase, but He Lifeng of China's National Development and Reform Commission, said the government regards the pandemic as temporary, and that the national economy is expected to grow in the second half of 2020. It shrank in the first quarter of 2020 by 6.8 percent.
While China deals with the pandemic and a trade war with the United States, which has suppressed economic development, it is also involved in a modernization of its military, including the construction of its third aircraft carrier. The military, notably the navy, has recently defended claims of sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea and the government has stepped up rhetoric regarding Taiwan's reunification with China. Taiwan, formally the Republic of China, is regarded by most of the world as an independent nation, but a breakaway province by China.
On Friday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the congress that "We will deepen reforms in national defense and the military, increase our logistic and equipment support capacity, and promote innovative development of defense-related science and technology." He also called for reconciliation with Taiwan, notably avoiding the word "peaceful," a term used as standard procedure in government comments about reunification.