China on Tuesday set itself a gross domestic product growth target of around 5 percent for 2024 during the opening of an annual session of its parliament, with the Asian powerhouse striving to shore up its slowing economy amid a long-running property crisis.

Beijing also announced in a budget report delivered at the National People's Congress session that it will increase its military spending this year to 1.67 trillion yuan ($231 billion), a 7.2 percent rise from last year and a sum around 4.3-fold larger than Japan's defense budget.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang speaks on the opening day of the weeklong National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2024. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

On Taiwan, which Beijing regards as part of its territory, Premier Li Qiang said his country will be "firm in advancing the cause of China's reunification" with the self-ruled island. The mainland will "resolutely oppose" separatist activities aimed at "Taiwan independence" and external interference, he said.

The growth goal for the world's second-largest economy is the same as its target for 2023. Last year, China's GDP expanded a real 5.2 percent from 2022, due partly to the previous year's low baseline caused by the country's stringent "zero-COVID" policy that involved citywide lockdowns.

Li said that China accomplished its main economic development goals in 2023 despite "an unusually complex international environment," as he delivered a government policy direction report for 2024 to nearly 3,000 delegates at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was present at the session. Li, a close ally of the leader, delivered his first report as premier at the legislature, having assumed the post in March last year during the previous annual meeting.

The underlying trend of economic recovery and long-term growth remains unchanged and will remain so, the premier noted, adding, "On the other hand, we should not lose sight of worst-case scenarios and should be well prepared for all risks and challenges."

In setting the 2024 growth target, Li said the government has taken into account the "need to boost employment and incomes and prevent and defuse risks." He added that achieving the goal "will not be easy," calling for hard work and the mobilization of a concerted effort.

The premier pledged that Beijing will "continue to implement a proactive fiscal policy" to support the economy and refine real estate policy to "promote the steady and healthy development" of the property market.

Li also pointed to substantial achievements that have been made in China's scientific innovations such as artificial intelligence and quantum technology and vowed to further promote research and development.

As part of efforts to boost the economy, the policy direction report said that China will abolish all market access restrictions on foreign investment in manufacturing and reduce obstacles in services sectors such as telecommunications and health care.

China's 2024 growth target compares with a 4.6 percent expansion projected by the International Monetary Fund for the country this year in its update of the World Economic Outlook report released in January.

The rate of defense budget growth was the same as the year-on-year rise in 2023 and marked the ninth consecutive year in which the increase was less than 10 percent. On Monday, parliamentary spokesman Lou Qinjian defended the spending rise, calling it "reasonable" and in line with the country's economic growth.

"Compared with major military powers such as the United States, China's defense spending is quite low" in terms of its ratio to GDP and per-citizen expenditure, Lou said, adding that "China is committed to the path of peaceful development."

The policy direction report said the military will strengthen training and combat readiness to "firmly safeguard China's national sovereignty, security and development interests."

Chinese President Xi Jinping claps after Premier Li Qiang's speech during the opening ceremony of the weeklong National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2024. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

On Tuesday, Taiwan brushed aside Li's reunification claims, with the island's Foreign Ministry saying the territory is "sovereign and independent," and that neither Taiwan nor the mainland is subordinate to the other.

"The People's Republic of China has not governed Taiwan for a single day," and any attempt to distort the island's status will not change the current situation across the Taiwan Strait, the ministry said.

Cross-strait tensions have been rising since a deadly boat incident occurred near a remote Taiwanese island last month that claimed the lives of two Chinese fishermen. In May, the island's President-elect Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing has slammed as an independence advocate, will take office.

Taiwan and Communist-ruled China have been governed separately since they split in 1949 due to a civil war. Beijing regards the island as a renegade province to be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary.

This year's policy direction report lacked any mention of "peaceful reunification" with Taiwan as had been done previously.

Amid an intensifying rivalry with the United States, Li said China calls for "an equal and orderly multipolar world," adding that the country remains firm in "opposing all hegemonic, high-handed and bullying acts and upholding international fairness and justice."

The premier was apparently referring to U.S.-led efforts to tighten restrictions on Beijing's access to cutting-edge technologies such as semiconductors, alongside Washington and its allies' strategy of "decoupling and de-risking" to reduce dependence on the Asian economy.

As for Hong Kong and Macao, former British and Portuguese colonies that are administered through the "one country, two systems" policy, Li said Beijing will "remain committed to law-based governance" in the territories to ensure that they are "administered by patriots."

China has clamped down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where a "patriots-only" election policy was implemented.

Beijing scrapped a press conference by the premier that until this year had been held annually after the closure of the parliamentary session, breaking with a tradition maintained since 1993. The premier's role has waned since Xi began concentrating power in his own hands and started a norm-breaking third five-year term as the country's leader in 2022.

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