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China's Navy expansion "no threat to others" - paper

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s plans to add aircraft carriers to its fleet and an historic long-distance mission by its navy are aimed only at protecting the country and its trade interests, senior officials were quoted as saying on Monday.

Chinese People's Liberation Army naval troops stand in attention at a parade ground during the annual rotation of military personnel in Hong Kong in this November 25, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Alex Hoffard/Pool/Files

A long coastline, and high 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 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.

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 long-term plans to add an aircraft carrier to its fleet, and the unprecedented deployment of its navy to fight pirates in waters off Somalia late last year have sparked discussion in the West about Beijing’s ultimate goals.

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.

“China is doing exactly what other countries are doing, sending ships there: To protect national interests,” the English-language report quoted Zhang saying.

However, in a sign of how a stronger fleet might affect the regional balance of power, Zhang said China was keen to resolve disputes through negotiation, but stressed its forces were capable of protecting its maritime territory.

There are several disputed islets in waters near China, potentially key to seabed deposits of oil and gas.

China, Japan and Taiwan all lay claim to the Diaoyu islands, known as the Senkakus in Japanese and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan. Further south, the Spratley islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The vulnerability of China’s supply lines for vital commodities like oil, and shipments from its thousands of factories, was mentioned as a key concern by academics and officials interviewed by the China Daily.

A stronger navy was needed to protect increasing shipments on the open seas, the China Daily quoted Rear Admiral Yang Yi saying. He also said the navy would always be a peaceful force committed to regional security.