China’s defense budget this year is likely to rise at its slowest pace since 2010, in line with the decelerating economy. (Reuters)

China said Friday that its military spending will grow by 7 to 8 percent in 2016, the smallest increase in six years and a lower figure than many experts had expected, reflecting a slowing economy and a cut in troop numbers.

Although experts say actual spending is significantly higher than the official budget, China’s military spending is still dwarfed by that of the United States, both in monetary terms and as a proportion of the overall economy.

Nevertheless, China’s growing military muscle and its robust assertion of its territorial claims in the South China Sea have sparked concerns throughout Asia, helping propel jumps in defense spending in countries including India, Japan and Vietnam.

Fu Ying, spokeswoman for China’s parliament, said the increase reflected the country’s national defense needs as well as the state of its economy and fiscal revenue.

The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, had argued this week for double-digit growth in military spending. It also called for China to deploy more weaponry to the South China Sea in response to what it said was Washington’s growing military presence there.

Delegates from the People's Liberation Army stand in line as they arrive at the Great Hall of the People to attend a session of National People’s Congress in Beijing on Friday. (Andy Wong/AP)

Ni Lexiong, a professor of political science and military expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said he had expected an increase of 12 to 15 percent in response to rising regional tensions.

“Obviously it shows that China wants to demonstrate to the West, including the U.S. and the neighboring countries that it has disputes with, that China sincerely wants to solve the problems through peaceful means,” he said. “But the second reason is that China’s economy is bad indeed.”

China’s President Xi Jinping is trying to modernize and streamline the country’s military, seeking to make it more effective and simultaneously curb corruption. The People’s Liberation Army is being trimmed by 300,000 troops, but the 2-million-member force is still the world’s largest standing army.

The increase would be the first single-digit boost in defense spending since 2010, when the budget rose 7.5 percent, and is below the 10.1 percent boost in last year’s budget. It is roughly in line with official economic growth of 6.9 percent in 2015 and would take the military budget to around $150 billion, about a quarter of Pentagon spending of nearly $600 billion last year.

In relation to the overall economy, China’s official defense budget amounts to 1.3 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 3.1 percent in the United States.

China has been repeatedly criticized by the United States for a massive land-reclamation effort in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

But at a news conference ahead of the opening session of China’s National People’s Congress, Fu rejected Washington’s argument that China is militarizing the strategically important waters.

“Talking about militarization, if you look at it carefully, most of the advanced aircraft and warships passing through the South China Sea belong to the United States,” she said.

Fu argued that President Obama’s strategic re-balance to Asia, as well as recent U.S. naval operations, with warships sailing close to Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed Spratly chain, had raised tensions and heightened emotions.

“Chinese people think that it’s not good that the U.S. sent military ships to areas so close to Spratly Islands to show off its military, and this very much disgusts the Chinese people,” she said. “Originally on the Spratly issue, the United States said that it did not take sides. But the acts and words of the United States now are stimulating intense emotions in many people, which draws a big question mark over the motives of the United States.”

The United States says its naval operations are designed to underline the principle of freedom of navigation through international waters and insists it takes no sides in the territorial dispute.

This week, the U.S. Navy said it had dispatched an aircraft carrier and several other ships to the South China Sea on what was described as a routine patrol. The carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, arrived in the South China Sea on Tuesday, in a region where China has recently deployed surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets, and is thought to be building a military radar facility.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that China’s actual military spending is more than 50 percent above the budgeted figure when items such as military research and development, arms imports, military construction and pension costs are taken into account.

In 2014, the institute’s broader measure of military spending scored China as spending 2.1 percent of GDP, compared with the United States at 3.5 percent.

Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.