BEIJING • China has put into service its new-generation J-20 stealth fighter, which it hopes will narrow the military gap with the United States, as senior naval officers said the country was building a "first class" navy and developing a marine corps.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is overseeing a sweeping modernisation of the country's armed forces, the largest in the world, including anti-satellite missiles and advanced submarines, seeking to project power far from its shores.
In a report, state television's military channel confirmed that the J-20 had now entered service, but it gave no other details. The aircraft was shown in public for the first time in November at the Zhuhai air show.
However, questions remain on whether the new Chinese fighter can match the radar-evading properties of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor air-to-air combat jet or the latest strike jet in the US arsenal, Lockheed's F-35. The F-22, developed for the US Air Force, is the J-20's closest lookalike.
The navy is another key focus for China. It has been taking an increasingly prominent role in recent months, with a rising star admiral taking command, its first aircraft carrier sailing around self-ruled Taiwan and new Chinese warships popping up in far-flung places.
With President Donald Trump promising a US shipbuilding spree and unnerving Beijing with his unpredictable approach on hot-button issues, including the South and East China seas, China is pushing to narrow the gap with the US Navy.
The People's Liberation Army Navy deputy chief of staff Wang Weiming told Xinhua on the sidelines of the annual legislative meeting that China is speeding up the development of a marine corps, adding that destroyers and frigates and will step up air and sea patrols.
"We will intercept any intruding aircraft and follow every military vessel in areas under our responsibility," he said. "Our sailors should stay vigilant and be able to deal with emergencies at all times."
China's domestically developed aircraft carrier is in "good shape" and now awaiting fitting, he added. Experts expect it to enter service around 2020, joining the existing, Soviet-built carrier, the Liaoning.
Beijing's military ambitions, including a more assertive stance in the disputed South China Sea, have long rattled its neighbours. China will also increase its defence budget by 7 per cent to 1.044 trillion yuan (S$214 billion).
China denies it is a military threat to anyone. Mr Wang Huayong, deputy political commissar of the Eastern Theatre Command, said Chinese forces are for defensive purposes only. "The new aircraft carrier is still in training and trial stage. The marines remain weak, and the number and quality of long-distance vessels do not meet expectations."