China said Tuesday it is considering an offer from the Seychelles to host Chinese naval ships in the Indian Ocean island nation, highlighting the increasing global reach of a navy that recently launched its first aircraft carrier.
State-run media gave prominent coverage to the Seychelles offer to allow rest and resupply for Chinese ships in the multinational force conducting anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia, which China has joined since late 2008.
But the reports were careful to reaffirm China's firm policy of not establishing permanent military bases overseas, a cornerstone of Beijing's claim not to be seeking regional hegemony or military alliances with other nations.
"China's position is clear. China has never set up military bases in other countries," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters at a daily news briefing.
Chinese ships assigned to the anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden have visited several ports to allow their crews to rest and to take on supplies, including in Yemen and Oman on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.
The China Daily newspaper said the invitation from the Seychelles was issued during a visit to the archipelago by Defense Minister Liang Guanglie earlier this month.
The Chinese navy has grown in recent years from a coastal protection force to one spanning the globe, sending ships as far as the Caribbean on goodwill missions and into the Mediterranean to escort vessels evacuating Chinese citizens from the fighting in Libya.
The navy also began sea trials in August for its first aircraft carrier, the former Soviet Varyag, towed from Ukraine in 1998 minus its engines, weaponry and navigation systems. China says the carrier is intended for research and training, leading to speculation that it plans to build future copies.
China's military expansion and strong assertions of claims to disputed territory have raised regional concerns, prompting many of China's neighbors to strengthen ties with the U.S. military that has traditionally predominated in the Asia Pacific.
While Beijing has tried to assuage those concerns, it has also asserted its claims with patrols and other physical displays, and on Tuesday dispatched its largest coast guard cutter to the East China Sea.
The 322-foot (98-meter) Haijian will visit Chinese rock outcroppings as well as a gas field claimed by China and Japan. There was no indication it planned to visit other islands that Japan controls but China claims.
The policy of ruling out permanent military bases overseas has been questioned in recent years as China travels further abroad in search of economic opportunities and resources for its growing economy. Chinese academics and military thinkers have floated hitherto unheard-of proposals for bases in the Indian Ocean to protect energy supply lines, only to be met with crisp disavowals from the government.
The issue of Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean is of particular interest to India, which has long-standing border disputes with China and is deeply suspicious of China's close ties with archrival Pakistan.