BEIJING (Reuters) - China's neighbors are worried its aircraft carrier program may in time intimidate regional rivals but its military on Thursday defended the plan as vital for maritime security.
A day after China confirmed it was refitting an old Soviet vessel, and sources told Reuters it was building two of its own carriers, the official Liberation Army Daily stressed the mix of patriotic glory-seeking and future security worries behind the decision.
China's humiliations at the hands of Western powers in the past centuries "left the Chinese people with the deep pain of having seas they could not defend, helplessly eating the bitter fruit of being beaten for being backward," said a front-page editorial in the paper.
That trend is changing as Beijing ramps up its military spending while Washington discusses cutting its much larger defense budget. Growing Chinese military reach is triggering regional jitters that have fed into longstanding territorial disputes, and could speed up military expansion across Asia.
In the past year, China has had run-ins at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The incidents -- boat crashes and charges of territorial incursions -- have been minor, but the diplomatic reaction often heated.
"The issue of transparency regarding China's defense policy and its military expansion itself are concerns not only for Japan but for the region and the international community," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said on Thursday.
In the 2012 budget submitted to Congress this week, the Philippines wants to raise military spending to 8 billion pesos ($190 million) per year from a previous 5 billion.
"(China's military modernization) serves as a clarion call for the Philippines to also upgrade its military capability to patrol its waters," said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
The Chinese carrier program could fuel the drive for submarines in Southeast Asia, said Rory Medcalf, program director of International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
"There is already a submarine race, or submarine capability competition, in the region. This could add to that dynamic but I do not think it will be fundamental driver of it," he said.
Japan's plan to boost the number of its submarines to 22 from 16, announced last year, was mainly a response to China's naval buildup, said Narushige Michishita, associate professor at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
"Japan is already taking some countermeasures," he said.
As well as refitting the old Soviet-era carrier bought from Ukraine in 1998, China is building two indigenous aircraft carriers as part of a broad modernization program, sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
"Putting it in the overall context of China's expanding and modernizing military, there is some cause for concern," said Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul.
South Korea disputes territory with China, which is the major backer of the principal threat to security on the Korean peninsula, the North.
Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own and has never renounced the use of force to recover, will also be watching closely. It warned again last week about Beijing's growing military threat.
"In the previous 60 years, the threat to Taiwan was all from the west," said Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studies at Taipei's Tamkang University. "But with a moving platform, China can pose a threat to Taiwan from the eastern side, which means that Taiwan is threatened from all directions."
Others point to India, China's great rival as an emerging Asian economic and military powerhouse.
"If the Chinese leave the west Pacific, there's only one areas they're interested in, the Indian Ocean. In that sense, competition with (India) is inevitable," said Raja Menon, a former rear admiral in the Indian navy.
China's Liberation Army Daily identified future risks as a rationale for the carrier program, which will take many years to create an operational carrier force.
"The struggle to win maritime interests is increasingly intense," the editorial added. A powerful navy is "an inevitable choice for protecting China's increasingly globalised national interests," said the paper.
President Hu Jintao has made the navy a keystone of China's military ramp-up, and the carriers will be among the most visible signs of the country's rising military prowess.
China has repeatedly denied its military modernization is for anything other than defensive purposes, pointing out it that it spend far less than the United States on its military. ($1 = 42.110 Philippine Pesos)
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Laurence in Seoul, Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Michael Perry in Sydney, C.J. Kuncheria in New Delhi, Manuel Mogato in Manila and Christine Lu in Taipei; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Jonathan Thatcher)