SHANGHAI/BEIJING China needs to raise its military capabilities to protect its growing overseas interests, its foreign minister said following the launch of China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, while vowing not to pursue expansionism.
China launched the carrier on Wednesday amid rising tension over North Korea and regional worries about Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea and its broader military modernisation programme.
Speaking during a visit to Germany, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Chinese business and citizens had spread all around the world, with millions of people living overseas and nearly 30,000 Chinese-funded businesses registered in other countries.
"Under this new environment, China has ample reason to raise its own national defence capability to effectively protect its fair rights that are increasingly extending overseas," Wang said in response to a question on the new carrier, according to a statement on the ministry's website on Thursday.
China would maintain a "defensive" military policy and had "no intention to engage in any kind of expansion", he said.
China's navy 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 warships appearing in far-flung places.
President Xi Jinping's "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure plan to forge enhanced trade corridors linking Europe and Africa with Central Asia and China further underscore the long-held blue-water ambitions of his naval strategists.
Little has been known, however, about China's domestic aircraft carrier programme, which is a state secret. China also does not give a spending breakdown for its defence budget.
But the government has said the new carrier's design draws on experiences from its first carrier, the Liaoning, bought second-hand from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted in China.
The influential state-run tabloid the Global Times said the launch represented a "milestone" in military development.
"Building a strong defence...with a widespread global reach is now necessary to protect China's businesses and the massive interests that arise from them," the paper said in an editorial on Thursday.
"Having a domestically built aircraft carrier is also inspirational. China is taking concrete steps to be a first-rate power."
State media has quoted experts as saying China needs at least six carriers, and a corresponding number of overseas bases to support them.
That will leave China well short of being able to challenge the United States which operates 10 carriers and plans to build two more, and has decades of experience operating them.
Speaking at a monthly news briefing, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun would not say how many more carriers China wanted to build, only that future developments could give "overall consideration" to various factors.
Asked if China wanted overseas bases to support its carriers, Yang added: "I think this is overthinking things". He did not elaborate.
Both Western and Asian naval officers are closely watching the development of the 001A, particularly for any advances in being able to properly defend the carrier against rival ships and submarines.
Liaoning test drills have concentrated largely on flight operations, and foreign officials say China has much to learn to about strike group defence, particularly anti-submarine tracking and early warning systems.
Experts note the cramped, tense and relatively well armed coastlines surrounding China could prove difficult operating conditions for Beijing's carriers but they could challenge broader U.S. regional dominance in coming decades.
A conflict in the hotly disputed South China Sea, for example, would probably see carrier groups deployed safely east of the Philippines, some noted.
But even if it takes years before Beijing fully masters the complex art of defending a strike group far from its shores, its carriers could still serve to display coercive military power against weaker adversaries.
"Even before they perfect this, there are plenty of roles China's carriers could perform against weaker states that shouldn't be forgotten," James Goldrick, a retired Australian navy rear admiral, said.
"A carrier off a coast is still a strong message if you are a much weaker state."
(Additional reporting by Greg Torode in HONG KONG and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Robert Birsel and Lincoln Feast)