- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

QINGDAO, CHINA (AP) - A future Chinese aircraft carrier may worry neighboring navies because Beijing has not specified what role the warship would play in the region, the U.S. chief of Naval Operations said Tuesday.

China, meanwhile, said a more powerful navy would not pose a threat as it mulls adding its first aircraft carrier to an increasingly sophisticated fleet.

The comments by Adm. Gary Roughead came amid growing signs that China plans to build a carrier as the country puts on a major display of naval weaponry this week in the northern port of Qingdao. The show was part of celebrations for the Chinese navy’s 60th anniversary.

Long a goal of Chinese military planners, a carrier would bring much desired prestige to China’s navy and could embolden it in asserting Chinese territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea, analysts say. A carrier would also better allow Beijing to defend sea lanes crucial for the safe passage of trade and natural resources.

“If it is not clear what the intent is of the use of an aircraft carrier, I would say that it may cause concern with some of the regional navies and nations,” Roughead told reporters in Qingdao where he held talks with his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Wu Shengli.

Wu did not comment on a possible Chinese carrier.

In earlier comments to The Associated Press, defense analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org said an aircraft carrier could bring China into conflict at sea with other regional military powers, including the U.S., Japan, South Korea and India.

“The main barrier (to operating a carrier) is deciding what role such ships would play in China’s maritime strategy,” Pike said.

Vice Adm. Ding Yiping, the Chinese navy’s deputy commander, reiterated China’s contention that the People’s Liberation Army does not pose a threat to other nations.

“The PLA Navy will continue to make contributions to maintain world, regional and maritime peace,” Ding was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

A total of 21 foreign ships are attending the Qingdao naval display, the first of its kind for China.

Thursday’s international fleet review is to feature vessels from China and 14 foreign nations, including _ for the first time _ Chinese nuclear submarines, according to Ding. The types of vessels were not specified.

The People’s Liberation Army, controlled by the Communist Party, has traditionally kept its best weaponry tightly under wraps, but recent years have seen a growing openness as it seeks to take its place among the ranks of modern, professional militaries.

China’s 225,000-member navy operates more submarines than any other Asian nation, with up to 10 nuclear-powered vessels and as many as 60 diesel-electric subs.

The country’s nuclear-powered Jin and Shang class submarines are considered just a notch below cutting-edge U.S. and Russian craft. Its diesel-electric Yuan class also boasts an indigenously developed air-independent propulsion system that allows it to remain submerged for weeks.

In comments to foreign commanders gathered Tuesday, Wu said world navies need to work together to confront non-conventional security threats _ a reference to the multinational anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast.

He encouraged all navies to make maritime peace their “unshakable mission.”

China’s deployed its anti-piracy patrol last December to Somalia in a rare joint operation with navies from other countries. It was the first time the communist state dispatched ships abroad on a combat mission.

Wu also reiterated China’s insistence that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea guide the resolution of all maritime disputes. China says the convention gives it the right to restrict the collection of military intelligence within its 200-mile (320-kilometer) exclusive economic zones, and has dispatched boats to harass U.S. Naval vessels within that area.

“We must abide by the principles and the regulations of the United Nations Charter when handling maritime affairs and carrying out military operations on the oceans,” Wu said.

The U.S., however, insists on the right of free passage in international waters, and says the convention specifically gives warships and naval auxiliary vessels immunity from being stopped, searched or boarded, while allowing military operations within the economic zones.

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