China unveiled plans to build more aircraft carriers after commissioning its first last year, as the country extends its influence amid territorial disputes with neighbors including Japan and Vietnam.
Future aircraft carriers will carry more fighter jets than the Liaoning, Rear Admiral Song Xue told foreign military attaches yesterday in Beijing, according to the official Xinhua New Agency. The carrier was built around a Soviet-era hull and began trials at sea last year.
The remarks signal that the People’s Liberation Army will push ahead with a modernization plan under which defense spending has more than doubled since 2006. China has been more assertive in pressing sovereignty claims against Japan as well as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
“This only adds publicly to what many believed to be the case: that the Liaoning is a training or ‘starter’ carrier and eventually China would build larger and more capable ones,” Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on China’s relations with its neighbors, said by e-mail. “It suggests that today’s PLA is much more confident than in the past regarding its willingness to talk about future military programs.”
At the same time, tensions between China and Japan have escalated over islands in the East China Sea claimed by both sides. Yesterday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to use force if necessary to defend the islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
The tensions flared as Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited China. He and Chinese counterpart Fang Fenghui said April 22 they want to expand military ties.
“The heightened risk is a function of heightened rhetoric that could produce emotional outcomes at the tactical level that could frankly get away from control of the central level,” Dempsey told reporters in Beijing today.
China and Japan each issued formal protests yesterday over the presence of each other’s vessels in waters around the islands, which lie in an area rich in fish and natural gas. China also protested after members of Abe’s government visited a Tokyo shrine seen in Asia as a symbol of wartime aggression.
“Relations between China and Japan are at their worst since diplomatic ties were established in 1972,” Rumi Aoyama, a professor of Chinese studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, said yesterday. “At this point, it’s about maintaining lines of communication to make sure things don’t get worse.”
Eight Chinese vessels were in waters administered by Japan as of 3 p.m. yesterday, the Japanese Coast Guard said. Xinhua said Chinese surveillance ships “drove away” Japanese fishing boats in the waters, citing the State Oceanic Administration.
Defense ministry officials from both countries may hold talks on the islands, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in Tokyo. The Asahi newspaper today said director-general level talks could take place as soon as this month to discuss the establishment of a maritime communications hotline.
“It appears that something like that is being arranged, and Japan’s door is always open to diplomatic talks with China,” Suga told reporters. “It’s true we have discussions with China about issues such as this.”
China has also pressed its claims in the South China Sea. Last month, a Chinese ship fired on a Vietnamese fishing vessel in an area of the sea claimed by both sides. Chinese and Philippine vessels squared off early last year over claims to a reef known as Scarborough Shoal.
Zhang Zheng, the Liaoning’s captain, told the foreign attaches that the carrier’s crew had mastered the ship’s weapons systems, Xinhua reported. Song said that the J-15 fighter aircraft needed more trials before becoming operational on the carrier, according to the report.
China has the world’s second-biggest military budget after the U.S. Its military has deployed missile systems capable of destroying aircraft carriers. Such anti-ship missiles have been placed across China’s southern coast facing Taiwan, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the Defense Intelligence Agency director, said in an April 18 statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.