China's neighbours are worried its aircraft carrier programme 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 defence budget, and growing Chinese military reach is triggering regional jitters that have fed into longstanding territorial disputes.
In the past year, China has had run-ins at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The incidents -- collisions and accusations of territorial incursions -- have been minor, but the diplomatic reaction often heated.
"The issue of transparency regarding China's defence 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.
"China is being called on to improve transparency by disclosing various pieces of information including specific purposes of holding aircraft carriers and their construction and deployment plans."
South Korea also disputes territory with China, which is also the major backer of the principal threat to security on the Korean peninsula, the North.
"In the past, China could only criticise the Americans whenever a U.S. aircraft carrier entered the Yellow Sea off of the South Korean coast," said Moon Hong-sik, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.
"Now, they are capable of displaying their own show of force in response to an American carrier deployment in close proximity to China."
PROTECT NATIONAL INTEREST
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 modernisation programme, sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
"Putting it in the overall context of China's expanding and modernising military, there is some cause for concern," said Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul.
"When we ask what they will do, or might do, with the growing capability, there is greater concern these days about the uncertainties that lie ahead with the South China Sea."
The Liberation Army Daily pointed to future risks as a rationale for the carrier programme, which will take many years to create an operational carrier force.
"The 21st century has been called the century of the sea, and the seas have become an important space for the expansion of national interests," said the editorial.
"Maritime security has become an important sphere of national security, and 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.
"An aircraft carrier is a battle platform that can be used for offence or defence, and that fundamentally rests on a country's defence policy and military strategy," said the paper.
"China's development is the development of a force for peace."