CHINESE military officials hinted yesterday they were inching closer to developing the country's first operational aircraft carrier, which would greatly enhance the capacity to project military power beyond the immediate region.
A spokesman for the Defence Ministry, Senior Colonel Huang Xueping, said China would "earnestly research and consider" developing an aircraft carrier to protect its vast sea territories. "Aircraft carriers are a symbol of a country's overall national strength as well as the competitiveness of the country's naval force."
The comments were made at a rare press conference to provide details on China's deployment of war ships to ward off pirates in the Gulf of Aden and around the coast of Somalia.
Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on the Chinese military at the Institute of Global Conflict and Co-operation at the University of California, said it was "becoming increasingly clear that a political decision has been made" to deploy an aircraft carrier.
"This is all part of a growing propaganda campaign, this inching forward process of preparing the world that an aircraft carrier can be expected in the next few years."
Mr Cheung said it would take years to upgrade a Ukrainian carrier now berthed at the port of Dalian, buy suitable Russian fighter planes, train pilots and otherwise assemble the hardware and logistical capacity to support an aircraft carrier.
It would take even longer if China were to build an aircraft from scratch, as some Chinese navy and industry leaders would prefer.
"As a great power, China needs [an] aircraft carrier sooner or later," said Shi Yinhong, Professor of International Relations at the People's University.
"Although the Government or army has never announced China will build [an] aircraft carrier, we are seeing a lot of indirect discussion from official and semi-official sources."
An aircraft carrier was necessary to defend the country's long coastline, prepare for future conflict and protect the energy supply, he said.
Some defence analysts say building an aircraft carrier is more a matter of national prestige than military necessity.
"An aircraft carrier is a neat symbol of power but not necessarily a sign of substance, because they are so easy to sink," said Professor Hugh White, of the Australian National University and the Lowy Institute.
"If I was an American I would be down on my knees and praying they would be dumb enough to build one."
China's Somalia deployment is shaping as a test of China's military capability and an opportunity to develop and project its forces without ruffling global or regional powers such as the US and India.
"It is a very neat piece of strategic diplomacy by the Chinese," Professor White said.
Two destroyers, a supply ship, two helicopters and special forces will depart on Boxing Day to join other international naval vessels in fending off pirates around the Somalian coast and in the Gulf of Aden.