J-15 fighters from China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier take part in a drill on Jan. 2, 2017 in the South China Sea. Chinese military experts believe much of the planned increase in the country’s military budget this year will go toward the navy. (China Stringer Network/Reuters)

China’s official military budget will rise about 7 percent this year, the slowest pace since 2010, a Chinese official said Saturday.   

The figure was announced ahead of annual political meetings in Beijing. It came just days after President Trump pitched a 10 percent surge in U.S. military spending.

Though foreign experts maintain that China dramatically understates its figures, the United States still spends far more on defense, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of gross domestic product.

China this year will spend 1.3 percent of its GDP on the military, according Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has estimated that China in 2015 spent 1.9 percent of its GDP on the military, compared to 3.3 percent for the United States.

China is spending more on its military each year, but the rate of growth has slowed. Last year, with the economy flagging, Chinese officials announced the first single-digit rise since 2010.

The slower pace has done little to calm nerves. With Beijing pressing its maritime claims in the South China Sea, including building military infrastructure on man-made islands, its plans are closely watched.

Fu Ying, the spokewoman who announced the 2017 figure, did not provide details on the 2017 budget. However, Chinese military experts and Communist Party-controlled newspapers predicted the increase would go toward the navy.

Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea have been a major source of tension between China and the United States as well as between China and its neighbors. 

The White House and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have said the United States won’t let China take territory in the South China Sea, though they have said little about how the United States would respond to Chinese construction of artificial islands.

The U.S. administration’s tough talk, combined with new plans for a major rise in U.S. military spending, have deepened fears of conflict.

China maintains that the United States has no place in the dispute and regularly accuses the U.S. government of “meddling” in Asian affairs. Since Trump took office, however, Chinese officials have taken a cautious tone, emphasising the prospects for peace.

A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week downplayed Trump’s vow to give the U.S. military a $54 billion boost, saying only that China hoped U.S. plans would benefit stability.

China is sensitive to criticism of its defense spending, especially from the U.S.

Fu Ying on Saturday shrugged off questions about military investment. “Look at the past decade or so; there have been so many conflicts, even wars, around the world resulting in serious, large numbers of casualties and loss of property, so many refugees destitute and homeless. Which one has China caused?” she said.

Ahead of this week’s meetings, Chinese experts argued that a rise in defense spending was part of a longstanding effort to modernize the Chinese military, not counter the United States.

“Military spending will continue to grow steadily,” said Zhao Chu, a Chinese military expert. “The army’s equipment is being upgraded. China’s army is still in the progress of military modernisation.”

China has a long-term goal of “becoming a world-class military force, just like America,” he said.

Chinese officials aren’t concerned with the growth rate of U.S. military spending, said  Peng Guangqian, who also studies China’s military. “As long as we take care of our own security issues, we don’t need to compare with others,” he said.

But within the Chinese establishment there are also calls for a more aggressive approach. Indeed, Fu and her colleagues may find it tough to sell the 7 percent figure at home.

President Xi Jinping has announced plans to cut 300,000 troops from the People’s Liberation Army. But de-mobilising won’t be easy: The Chinese capital saw two days of demonstrations last month from veterans who say they were cheated out of benefits. 

In the run-up to this week’s meetings, a retired Chinese general called for a 12 percent spending increase to pursue modernization and keep pace with the United States.

“The U.S. defense budget has increased by 10 percent and we need at least a double-digit increase. The most ideal is 12 percent,” Lieutenant General Wang Hongguang, a retired deputy commander of the former Nanjing Military Command, told the South China Morning post on Friday.

The Global Times, a Party-controlled newspaper known for its strident, nationalist tone, had called for an increase of 10 percent. 

“The U.S. is a military superpower,” the Times editorial said, “But it still wants to expand its military, which foreshadows the unavoidability of further strategic turbulence.”

Xin Jin and Congcong Zhang reported from Beijing.