(Adds information on Chinese ship in East China Sea)
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING, Dec 13 (Reuters) - China will consider turning to the Seychelles as a resupply port for navy ships taking part in anti-piracy operations off Africa, official media said, rejecting suggestions this would amount to a military base that could unsettle the region.
Chinese ships participating in a multi-nation campaign against pirates striking out from Somalia have already used ports in Djibouti, Oman, and Yemen to repair and to take aboard supplies, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
A resupply port in the Seychelles, an island country in the western Indian Ocean 1,600 km (1,000 miles) off the African coast, could raise concerns in India, which has been wary of China’s growing military reach.
The Chinese Ministry of Defence, however, said the Seychelles proposal was still just under consideration.
“According to escort needs and the needs of other long-range missions, China will consider seeking supply facilities at appropriate harbours in the Seychelles or other countries,” the ministry said on Monday, according to the China Daily.
“This approach is transparent, and there’s no cause for worry,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters, referring to those discussions.
“China has no plans for establishing military bases abroad,” said Liu, adding that he had not heard of any ideas of stationing personnel or aircraft on the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands.
Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie visited the Seychelles earlier this month.
Li Jie, a scholar at China’s Naval Military Studies Institute, told the paper that “as China will not send troops to protect the supply stop in the Seychelles, by no means can it be called an overseas military base”.
In an effort to douse fears about Chinese plans, Beijing has repeatedly said it does not want military bases abroad.
In 2009, Chinese officials distanced themselves from comments by a rear admiral, Wu Shengli, who urged the nation to set up navy supply bases overseas for the anti-piracy fight.
Chinese ships have undertaken anti-piracy operations off Somalia since late 2008, and in early 2010 Beijing agreed to join the multi-nation effort to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden and nearby stretches of the Indian Ocean.
Experts have said the effort has helped China master some of the logistical challenges of operating naval forces far from their home ports.
But the growing reach of China’s navy is raising regional concerns that have fed into longstanding territorial disputes in energy-rich waters in the East and South China seas.
China on Tuesday sent its biggest maritime patrol ship to the East China Sea, the Xinhua news agency reported, where it will visit oil and gas fields at the heart of a protracted and sometimes volatile territorial dispute with Japan.
China Marine Surveillance, a maritime law enforcement agency which also conducts environmental patrols, said the recently built 3,000-tonne Haijian 50 will visit the Chunxiao and Pinghu oil and gas fields in the sea.
Xinhua said that the voyage would help “guard the country’s territorial rights and marine interests”, but did not say whether the ship will approach seas that Japan deems to be its exclusive economic zone.
China and Japan have long been at odds over China’s exploration for natural gas in the East China Sea and over a group of uninhabited islets there, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
In 2008, Beijing and Tokyo agreed in principle to resolve the dispute by jointly developing gas fields, but progress has been slow and Japan has accused China of drilling for gas in violation of the deal.
Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Paul Tait and Ron Popeski