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BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Finance Minister Xiao Jie on Tuesday downplayed the lack of defense spending numbers in this year's budget as there had been in previous years, saying there was no problem with transparency in state spending plans.
The finance ministry released the 2017 budget report on Sunday and the omission of the closely watched defense spending projection immediately sparked questions about whether Beijing was intentionally trying to conceal the amount it spends on its rapidly modernizing military.
On Monday, the state news agency Xinhua finally released the number, quoting an unidentified Finance Ministry official saying that defense spending would rise this year by 7 percent to 1.044 trillion yuan ($151.21 billion).
The omission of the figure from the annual budget report marked a break with years of tradition.
"I can unequivocally tell you that the so-called 'non-transparency' issue does not exist," Xiao told a news conference during the annual session of the National People's Congress, or parliament, in Beijing.
He noted defense and foreign affairs spending plans were factored into drafts of the budget "and there was no need to repeat them in the budget report".
The budget increase, a figure that is closely watched around the world for clues to China's strategic intentions, comes as economic growth has slowed, with a target of about 6.5 percent for the year.
China's military build-up has rattled nerves around the region, with its increasingly assertive stance in territorial disputes in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and over Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
Even with the rise of 7 percent, China's defense spending amounts to only about a quarter of the U.S. defense budget, though many experts believe its actual spending on the military to be higher than the official figure.
Last year's budgeted hike of 7.6 percent was the lowest in six years and the first single-digit rise since 2010, following a nearly unbroken two-decade run of double-digit increases.
Reporting by Elias Glenn; Writing by John Ruwitch; Editing by Kim Coghill and Michael Perry