China has confirmed it is building its first indigenous aircraft carrier, using entirely domestic technology and tapping its experience in refitting a Ukrainian carrier.
Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a news briefing yesterday that the 50,000-ton vessel is being built in the north-eastern port city of Dalian. He stressed that China remains committed to peaceful development and to a defence policy that is defensive in nature.
"China has a long coastline and a vast maritime area under its jurisdiction. To safeguard our maritime sovereignty, interests and rights is the sacred mission of the Chinese armed forces," he said.
China has ramped up its naval modernisation efforts since 2012 as it seeks to become a maritime power to protect its growing interests. In recent years, it has been embroiled in territorial disputes with regional nations in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Beijing claims almost all of the resource-rich waters in the South China Sea, through which over US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) of maritime trade passes each year.
Until now, the Chinese government had neither denied nor confirmed its carrier-building programme - partly to allay concerns over its growing naval might, especially amid tensions with neighbours - though there had been leaks in recent years.
In January 2014, Liaoning provincial party chief Wang Min was quoted in the Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao newspaper as saying that construction of a second carrier had begun and would be completed in six years, and that China planned to build four carriers in total.
Last March, the navy's former political commissar Liu Xiaojiang told Hong Kong Commercial Daily that "a second aircraft carrier's construction was now in the hands of governmental agencies". Then, in September, Taiwan's Defence Ministry said in a report obtained by Reuters that China was building two aircraft carriers - one in Dalian and the other in Shanghai.
Experts say it is no surprise China is building its own carrier. Its sole carrier, the 60,000-ton Liaoning, bought from Ukraine in 1998 and commissioned in late 2012 after undergoing refitting, is over 25 years old and prone to mechanical problems. It is thus deemed more of a test model for building future carriers.