(Recasts with U.S. admiral’s comments, changes dateline)
HANOI, March 9 (Reuters) - The United States is watching but not worried about China’s ambition to float an aircraft carrier, a complex undertaking that Beijing will find far harder than it thinks, the top U.S. admiral for the Pacific said on Monday.
“We are interested in it, but not concerned,” Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said during a visit to Vietnam.
On Monday, a Chinese newspaper quoted a senior naval officer as saying the addition of aircraft carriers would not change China’s “purely defensive” military strategy.
Defence analysts have speculated for years that Beijing planned to develop aircraft carriers for its growing and quickly modernising fleet, but Chinese government and military officials have generally been coy about it.
Willard, whose naval career of more than 30 years has including flying F-14s from the deck of carriers and commanding them, said developing an aircraft carrier force was “very daunting, requiring a great deal of resource, time and commitment”.
“It will be much harder than they think,” he told reporters.
Beijing has been keen to emphasise its case that its growing economic and political might is not a threat to other nations, even downgrading a doctrine of “peaceful rise” to “peaceful development” over worries the former might sound aggressive.
But its long-term aircraft carrier plans and the unprecedented deployment recently of ships to fight pirates in waters off Somalia late last year have sparked discussion about Beijing’s ultimate goals.
A long coastline and a dependence on seaborne trade meant China needed to have a strong presence at sea, but its growing confidence should not be misread as a “China threat”, the Chinese Navy’s deputy chief of staff told the official China Daily.
“Even when the navy has its aircraft carriers one day, our national defence strategy will remain purely defensive,” Major General Zhang Deshun told the paper in a story splashed across its front page on Monday.
Zhang said any worries were misplaced. Aircraft carriers are “strategically very common” for big countries with long coastlines and the “historic” mission to join an anti-piracy campaign in the waters off Somalia was no different from those of other nations, he added.
Willard said the United States had “paid very close attention” to China’s military advancements in recent years, and said a better understanding would help keep the region stable.
“To the extent that we understand the PRC and their military and their long-term intentions, and to the extent that the regional nations understand equally their sizable neighbour, I think it will go a long way toward contributing to the security and safety long term throughout this region,” he said.
“It is our great desire ... that the Chinese navy and armed forces contribute constructively to the overall security situation” in the region, he said. The United States would welcome a strong Chinese military that did so, he added.
China has a handful of maritime disputes with its neighbours, including over potential seabed deposits of oil and gas. Beijing has also said that it would use force if necessary to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence. (Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison in BEIJING; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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