A Chinese general has reportedly confirmed one of China's worst kept military secrets: It's readying its first aircraft carrier.
The Hong Kong Commercial Daily reported this week that Gen. Chen Bingde told the newspaper that the carrier was being outfitted, though he refused to give a timetable for its completion. "The carrier is now being built. It's not completed. When it is, we'll say more," the newspaper quoted Chen as tersely saying.
While the reported remarks are the highest level confirmation by the secretive military, the carrier program has been widely known for several years.
Bought from Ukraine in 1998, the stripped shell of the mothballed Varyag was towed to China, first supposedly to serve as a casino. It later arrived in the northeastern port of Dalian, where it is being outfitted. Photos of its sloping deck and command tower have been turning up on websites of military enthusiasts.
The aircraft carrier has come to symbolize China's ambitions for a military with global reach that ultimately may rival the U.S. Though the addition of one carrier to China's rapidly expanding navy isn't expected to threaten the U.S. military's dominance, an American admiral said in April that the vessel could feed perceptions of a shift in the balance of power.
An aide to Chen acknowledged the carrier's symbolic potency while playing down its strategic value. "All the great powers in the world, including those permanent members of the (U.N.) Security Council, all have them. The carrier is seemingly the mark of a great nation," the newspaper quoted Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo as saying.
Qi was quoted as saying that China's military strategy remained defensive and that Beijing "will not be like some other countries with carriers, sailing them toward other peoples" _ an indirect jab at the U.S.
Queried by phone and fax Thursday, the Defense Ministry's spokesman's office said it could not confirm the reported remarks immediately.
The carrier, once launched, is expected to primarily serve as a training vessel for the navy and naval pilots who have been practicing landing aircraft on scale models. But specialists who study the People's Liberation Army expect China to move quickly to build its own seaworthy carriers.
Even so, the launch of the first carrier is expected to raise the stakes for Washington and jangle the already edgy nerves of China's neighbors upset with what they see as Beijing's more assertive posture to enforce claims to disputed territories.
Over the past year, China has seen a flare-up in territorial spats with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam and seen its relations strained with South Korea _ all of whom have turned to Washington for support.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported Thursday that the PLA navy will hold an exercise in international waters in the Western Pacific in the second half of June. The brief report, which cited the Defense Ministry, did not confirm the location but said that foreign media have recently reported that the Chinese navy recently sailed near Okinawa, the Japanese island that is home to several U.S. military bases.