Page last updated at 02:16 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 03:16 UK

China 'to increase naval power'

Chinese navy ships in the Gulf of Aden, 13 April 2009 (Xinhua)
China has deployed its ships off the coast of Somalia on anti-piracy duties

China is planning to boost the size and sophistication of its naval power, the head of the Chinese navy told state news agency Xinhua.

In a rare interview, Admiral Wu Shengli said the communist party leadership had made naval preparedness a priority, but did not provide specifics.

Last month, China said it would step up naval patrols to protect its interests in disputed waters.

Its navy was also involved in a confrontation with a US ship in March.

Admiral Wu told Xinhua that the Chinese navy would focus on speeding up the development of large warships as part of its efforts develop an oceangoing fleet.

His comments are being interpreted as a further hint that China will soon be getting its first aircraft carrier - often considered the most vital element in any navy seeking to project power over long distances, says the BBC's defence correspondent Rob Watson.

Regional role

The country is already engaged in extensive modernisation of its navy and its naval ambitions are increasingly directed at regional interests.

This year, for example, Beijing deployed ships off the coast of Somalia on anti-piracy duties - the country's first major overseas naval operation.

Territorial claims from China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia overlap in resource-rich sea
Hosts some of the world's busiest shipping lanes
China says the US was in its Exclusive Economic Zone - but the two sides disagree on what activities are allowed in an EEZ

It also said it plans to step up naval patrols in disputed waters in the South China Sea to protect against illegal fishing and other countries' "unfounded territorial claims" in oil-rich areas.

But while some of China's neighbours have been watching the build up of its naval and other military capabilities with some concern, it still lags a long way behind the United States, which remains the major naval power in the region, our correspondent said.

Last month, the US Navy complained that one of its survey vessels was "harassed" by Chinese ships in what it called international waters off Hainan Island, south China.

China rejected the complaint, accusing the US of breaking international law by operating in seas it claims as its own. The two nations later agreed to try to avoid rows.

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