A senior Chinese defence official has told a British newspaper that any great power would want an aircraft carrier.
Major General Qian Lihua, director of the ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office, said that if China had a carrier, it would not be used for “global reach”.
His comments came amid speculation that China is building its first aircraft carrier, which he did not confirm.
China’s growing naval strength is of interest in Taiwan and the South China Sea where China claims territory.
“The navy of any great power… has the dream to have one or more aircraft carriers,” Maj Gen Qian said in the interview with the Financial Times newspaper.
“The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier.
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Above: USS George Washington
By Mure Dickie and Martin Dickson in Beijing
Published: November 16 2008
The world should not be surprised if China builds an aircraft carrier but Beijing would use such a vessel only for offshore defence, a senior official of the Chinese Ministry of National Defence has told the Financial Times.
The comments from Major General Qian Lihua, director of the ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office, come amid heated speculation within China and abroad that the increasingly potent naval arm of the People’s Liberation Army has decided to develop and deploy its first aircraft carrier. Traditionally, a carrier would accompany and protect a battle group of smaller ships.
The Pentagon said this year that China was actively engaged in aircraft carrier research and would be able to start building one by the end of this decade, while Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last month that the PLA was training 50 students to become naval pilots capable of operating fixed-wing aircraft from such a ship.
Maj Gen Qian declined to comment directly on whether China had decided to build a carrier, but in the defence ministry’s most forthright statement yet on the issue he made clear that China had every right to do so.
“The navy of any great power . . . has the dream to have one or more aircraft carriers,” he said in the interview, which aides said was the first arranged by the defence ministry on its own premises. “The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier.”
Though he did not mention the US by name, Maj Gen Qian pointedly contrasted the function of a possible Chinese vessel with the way the US Navy uses its 11 carriers. “Navies of great powers with more than 10 aircraft carrier battle groups with strategic military objectives have a different purpose from countries with only one or two carriers used for offshore defence,” he said. “Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike another country, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach.”
That pledge is unlikely to reassure those in the region concerned about the PLA navy’s emergence as a blue-water force. An effective Chinese carrier could have serious implications for any conflict involving Taiwan by strengthening the mainland’s ability to counter the island’s air force and control its sea-lanes.
Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan and threatens military action against the island if it tries to further formalise its current de facto independence. Taiwanese separatism was the “biggest threat” China currently faced, Maj Gen Qian said.
Admiral Timothy Keating, head of US Pacific Command, said in Beijing last year that Chinese development of a carrier should not be the cause of any unnecessary tension, and that the US would even be willing to lend a helping hand.