China's new leader burnishing his military support

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HONG KONG -- On the eve of the National People's Congress, the chief of China's Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is emphasizing his role as a champion of the military, using the armed forces to cement his political authority and present a tough stance in growing territorial disputes with American allies in the Pacific region.

Mr. Xi will be appointed president at the end of the congress, the party-run Parliament that opens Tuesday for an annual session of about 10 days. The 2,987 carefully vetted delegates are also virtually certain to approve another rise in military spending, after an 11.2 percent increase to $106 billion in the 2012 defense budget.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the parliament, Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, broke with recent precedent and declined to announce Chinese military outlays for the year at a news conference about the Congress session. The number will be disclosed in a budget released when the session opens, she said.

"We in China have endured the grievous lessons of having a weak national defense and suffering bullying by others," Fu told reporters. "The Chinese people have deep historical memories of this problem, and so we need solid national defense."

Since Mao Zedong's victory in a revolutionary war, the country's Communist leaders have regarded an utterly loyal military as the ultimate shield of their political power. Nearly four months since his appointment as party chief in November, Mr. Xi has made that shield his own, with greater speed and sureness than his recent predecessors.

"Compared with the two previous leaders at a similar stage, Xi has already established closer, better relations with the military. They didn't come to power with the same confidence," said Chen Ziming, an independent commentator in Beijing who studies party affairs.

Since succeeding Hu Jintao as party chief and military chairman in November, Mr. Xi has visited army units or met commanders and troops at least nine times, according to state news reports. Mr. Xi has also assumed charge of a secretive civilian-military group steering strategy in maritime disputes, particularly the clash with Japan over a cluster of barren islands in the East China Sea, according to Western analysts.

The Chinese military owes its paramount loyalty to the party, not the civilian government. In private, Mr. Xi has said military obedience to the party is essential to ensuring the Chinese Communist Party is not wiped out like its Soviet counterpart.

"Any paramount leader needs the support of the PLA and makes gestures in that direction. I think that's what Xi's doing," said Andrew Scobell, political scientist for the RAND Corp. who studies Chinese security policy. "It's kind of like how a kid holds onto a security blanket. The party is more secure than it thinks, but it needs that security blanket of the PLA."

Richard Bitzinger, a researcher at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who studies China's military, said China's military strength remains far behind that of the United States. "There's a lot of progress in modernizing the PLA, but a lot of it is just a high-tech veneer that goes over a system that is still pretty conservative," he said.

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