China’s defense budget will rise 12.7 percent in 2011 to 601.1 billion yuan ($91.7 billion), a government spokesman said on Friday, amid persistent concerns about Beijing’s military build-up.

The figure was contained in a budgetary report submitted to the National People’s Congress, the parliament’s spokesman Li Zhaoxing told a news conference on the eve of the opening of the annual NPC session.

“China has always paid attention to controlling the size of defence spending,” Li told reporters, describing spending as “relatively low” compared with the rest of the world.

Li, a former foreign minister, said the figure represented six percent of the total national budget in the world’s second-largest economy.

The number however represents a return to double-digit increases, which have alarmed the United States and several of China’s Asian neighbors. That trend had been broken last year when the defense budget rose 7.5 percent.

The People’s Liberation Army — the world’s largest — is hugely secretive about its defense programs, but insists its modernization is purely defensive in nature.

“This will not pose a threat to any country,” Li said.

For Willy Lam, a China analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the published military budget — which he said was likely only one-third to one-half of total spending — will be poured into next-generation equipment.

“The return to this double-digit PLA budget reflects the growing power of the PLA,” Lam told AFP. “They are trying to close the gap with Russia and the United States.”

Experts say the spending hike also reflects a desire to keep the pressure on Washington, Tokyo and others in the region.

“The Chinese communist leadership needs to increase its military intimidation of the United States, Taiwan and neighbors like Japan and India,” said Rick Fisher at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in the US.

“Spending increases advance this goal by ensuring that programs entering their expensive procurement phase, like aircraft carriers and nuclear missile submarines, can proceed without delay,” Fisher told AFP.

Tokyo has repeatedly questioned Beijing’s military intentions, especially after collisions in disputed waters in September between two Japanese coastguard boats and a Chinese fishing vessel that sparked a major row.

“We regard the modernization of China’s military power and its growing and intense activities as concerns,” top Japanese government spokesman Yukio Edano said Thursday, after two Chinese planes approached a contested island chain.

“Our country will continue to pay close attention to moves by China’s military.”

Japan has said it plans to send more forces to its scattered southern islands and away from Cold War-era locations in the north near Russia, citing Beijing’s increased assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.

India’s defense minister last month expressed “serious concern” over China’s growing military might, pledging to boost its own forces.

The two countries have long-standing border disputes in the Himalayas.

On Monday, India announced a nearly 12 percent jump in defense spending to $36 billion in its annual budget — up from a four percent hike last year.

In January, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing to patch up frayed military ties — and was instead greeted with the maiden flight of China’s first next-generation stealth fighter.

Last month, the Pentagon proposed a record “base” defense budget — excluding the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — of $553 billion for fiscal 2012.

“Advances by the Chinese military in cyber and anti-satellite warfare pose a potential challenge to the ability of our forces to operate and communicate in this part of the Pacific,” Gates said after his China visit.

But he added that Washington and Tokyo were well-placed to counter the threat with high-tech hardware and that it was not a foregone conclusion that China would turn into a military rival.