Thu, Jun 09, 2011 - Page 5 News List

PLA chief confirms first aircraft carrier

PEACEFUL RISE?China said the carrier would not enter other countries’ territorial waters, but its launch, possibly this month, comes at a time of tensions in the South China Sea

AFP and Reuters, HONG KONG and BEIJING

A top Chinese military official has confirmed that Beijing is building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence from China’s secretive armed forces.

In an exclusive interview published on Tuesday, the Hong Kong Commercial Daily quoted Chen Bingde (陳炳德), chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as saying the 300m refurbished Soviet carrier “is being built, but it has not been completed.”

He declined to elaborate, although there has been wide speculation that the vessel was nearly finished after the ship, then called the Varyag, was reportedly purchased in 1998. It is currently based in Dalian.

The ship, which an expert on China’s military has said would be used for training and as a model for a future indigenously-built ship, was originally built for the Soviet navy. Construction was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The paper quoted anonymous sources as saying the carrier would be launched by the end of this month at the earliest.

Qi Jianguo (戚建國), assistant to the chief of the PLA’s general staff, told the newspaper that the carrier would not enter other nations’ territories, in accordance with Beijing’s defensive military strategy.

“All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers — they are symbols of a great nation,” he was quoted as saying.

However, China is involved in a number of simmering marine territorial disputes.

China has claimed mineral rights around the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and argued that foreign navies cannot sail through the area without Beijing’s permission.

In September, Japan and China clashed over the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, located in the East China Sea.

Meanwhile, China stepped up criticism of the Philippines yesterday in a fresh exchange of invective over disputed waters, calling on Manila to stop infringing its sovereignty with irresponsible claims over the South China Sea.

“China demands that the Philippines stop unilateral actions that damage China’s sovereignty and interests at sea and could lead to the expansion and complication of the South China Sea dispute, and stop issuing irresponsible comments that are inconsistent with facts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said.

The comments, posted on the ministry’s Web site late on Tuesday, were China’s most vitriolic in weeks of tension as the Philippines has denounced what it says is the increasing assertiveness of Chinese ships in the region. On Tuesday, it cited the US’ stake in the stability and security of the world’s second-busiest sea lane.

Hong said China had stood by its position for centuries. Conducting missions and patrols by Chinese vessels in waters under Chinese jurisdiction was “completely reasonable.”

Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim territories in the sea, which covers an important shipping route and is thought to hold untapped oil and gas reserves.

China’s claim is to most of the sea’s 1.7 million square kilometers, including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

Manila has accused China of intrusions into its territory, citing six instances, including one in March when two Chinese patrol boats tried to ram a survey ship.

Vietnamese officials have also complained about Chinese activity in the contested waters, accusing Chinese patrol boats of harassing an oil-exploration ship conducting a seismic survey 120km off Vietnam’s south-central coast.

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