China's navy is playing an important role in the country's drive to become a world military power, with the recent trials of its first aircraft carrier underlining the scale of Beijing's naval ambitions.
China has become increasingly assertive on the high seas and the carrier's first outing last month sparked jitters in the United States and Japan, which said the move would have a "big impact" on the region.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) -- the largest armed force in the world -- is primarily a land force. But the navy is playing an increasing role as Beijing grows more assertive about its territorial claims, notably in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
On a rare visit on board the Anqing, a missile frigate at the Eastern Fleet base in Ningbo, south of Shanghai, journalists were accompanied by a group of officers as soldiers looked on impassively.
The officers were giving little away and the ship appeared to serve as a museum piece as much as a warship.
"As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China must take greater responsibility in world affairs," Captain Wei Hua, chief of staff of the Shanghai naval base, told the visiting journalists.
"We have some 18,000 kilometres of coastline and over three million square kilometres of maritime area. It is therefore very important to build a powerful navy to protect the country and its interests."
Taiwan, which has been self-governed since the end of a civil war in 1949 but which China still regards as part of its territory, remains key to Beijing's defence strategy, but is far from its only interest.
Beijing lays claim to swathes of the South China Sea which are also claimed by its smaller neighbours, and must also secure supply routes and new sources of raw materials to fuel its booming economy.
"Beijing intends to bring the (South) China Sea, which it regards as its backyard, firmly within its sphere of influence," said one international defence expert.
Since 2007, at the request of President Hu Jintao, the navy has held a permanent seat on the Central Military Commission, China's powerful supreme military authority.
And now the navy is looking further afield -- it already participates in the fight against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.
"In the same way that the country is developing, the Chinese navy is growing," said Wei.
The 2.3-million-member PLA is extremely secretive about its defence programmes, which benefit from a huge and expanding military budget boosted by the nation's runaway economic growth.
Last month, the Pentagon warned in an annual report to Congress on China's military of an increasing focus on naval power and said Beijing had invested in high-tech weaponry that would extend its reach in the Pacific and beyond.
China has ramped up efforts to produce anti-ship missiles that could knock out aircraft carriers, improved targeting radar, expanded its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and warships and made advances in satellite technology and cyber warfare, it said.
PLA expert Arthur Ding has said owning an aircraft carrier is a prestige issue for China.
"As China's interests expand globally, the Chinese navy needs to go further outbound, and an aircraft carrier is needed," he said.
Last month's first sea trials by the former Soviet hull, bought in the 1990s from Ukraine and then completely renovated and equipped in China, was seen as an indicator of Beijing's ambitions.
But questioned about the carrier, the Chinese military remained vague about its intended role.
The ship "can play a role in disasters in China or in neighbouring countries, like what the US did after the earthquake in Japan" in March, said Captain Wei.
"This is a reasonable move, many countries have aircraft carriers, such as India. This programme is not aimed against someone."
One of the experts interviewed by AFP also downplayed any threat.
The aircraft carrier is "probably a simple training platform. And it will be a number of years before the Chinese actually have a carrier battle group," he said.
by Guillaume Klein
(c) 2011 AFP
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