China has unveiled plans for a big overhaul and expansion of its navy, in an unusually bold confirmation that its naval ambitions have started to reach far beyond its own shores.

Admiral Wu Shengli, the commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, said it would accelerate efforts to develop a new generation of warships, submarines, fighter aircraft and high-precision long-range missiles to counter the rise in non-conventional threats.

The remarks were published by state media on Thursday, a week ahead of the navy’s 60th anniversary, which some military observers believe will increase clarity over whether Beijing is building an aircraft carrier.

China has for years been expanding the reach of its navy, documented by a new submarine base on the southern island of Hainan and sightings of its submarines east of Taiwan. In recent months, Beijing has more openly asserted its ambitions for a blue-water navy – one capable of operating in the open seas far off its own shores.

Several PLA sources have been quoted by state media over the past three months demanding that China proceed to build its own aircraft carrier. In November, a Chinese military spokesman told the Financial Times that the world should not be surprised if China built one.

The PLA navy has been participating in anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden since late last year, its first out-of-area mission, which has been welcomed by US naval commanders as an opportunity to work more closely with China.

However, the Chinese navy’s more assertive stance was recently underscored when its vessels harassed a US surveillance ship in the South China Sea, an area which it views as part of its territory, in claims conflicting with those of several neighbouring countries. The incident spark renewed calls from US military officials for Beijing to be more transparent about its intentions. US experts on the Chinese military point out that China announced in its 2006 defence white paper that its navy would take on a more expansive role, reaching out beyond its traditional focus on the coastline. The development of a new kind of submarine – the Jin class – that would carry nuclear warheads has also sparked more intense surveillance missions by US spy ships in the South China Sea.

A foreign defence expert in Beijing said Admiral Wu’s remarks were “setting the scenes for next week’s anniversary. It is now even clearer to us that that event is meant as a milestone.”

The anniversary, which will be attended by Admiral Gary Roughead, the head of the US Navy, will be marked with celebrations including a parade at sea. Foreign military vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, will also sail to Qingdao for the event.

China generally claims that its military strategy is purely defensive, mentioning potential moves towards formal independence by Taiwan, terrorism and piracy as main threats. The US regularly challenges that, saying that Beijing develops and possesses capabilities considered not needed to address those threats.

Adm Wu’s reference to China’s “expanded” national interests partly confirms this. Peng Guangqian, a military expert in Beijing, said one reason China needed a blue-water navy was to safeguard sea lanes for its exports and energy imports.

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