Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that he would like the Chinese government to explain to the international community why it needs an aircraft carrier.
China’s first aircraft carrier began sea trials last Wednesday. The mission has raised concerns in Japan and other Asian countries about China’s growing military strength and its increasingly assertive claims over disputed territory.
“The aircraft carrier is highly maneuverable and built for offense, Kitazawa told a news news conference in Tokyo on Friday. “There is no doubt that it will have a big impact on geopolitics in the region.”
China says the ship is intended for research and training, pointing to longer-term plans to build up to three additional clones of the carrier in China’s own shipyards.
In its annual defense report released earlier this month, Japan expressed growing concern at Chinese military exercises held in the Pacific and in waters surrounding Japan, a worry heightened by what it called China’s long-standing failure to provide information that would reassure the world about its rapid military modernization.
Japan has been especially worried by the Chinese navy, which plans to carry out operations and training as a routine practice in waters surrounding Japan, including the East China Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, the report said.
China, in turn, criticized the report as “irresponsible,” insisting its drive to modernize its forces was entirely defensive.
“As a major economy, China on the one hand should take more responsibilities for the world and on the other hand, it has some new security interests that it needs to protect. Under the circumstances, China’s naval power needs to grow accordingly,” said Wang Shaopu, director of the Center for Pan-Pacific Studies at Jiaotong University in Shanghai.
Beijing’s aircraft carrier program is seen as the natural outgrowth of the country’s burgeoning military expansion, fed by two decades of near-continuous, double-digit percentage increases in the defense budget. China’s announced military spending rose to $91.5 billion last year, the second highest in the world after the United States.
While the development of carriers is driven largely by bragging rights and national prestige, China’s naval ambitions have been brought into focus with its claims to disputed territory surrounding Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy claimed by China as its own, has responded to the growing Chinese threat by developing missiles capable of striking carriers at sea. An illustration at a display Wednesday of military technology in the capital Taipei showed a Hsiung Feng III missile hitting a carrier that was a dead ringer for the former Varyag.
Over the past year, China has seen a flare-up in spats with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam and had its relations strained with South Korea—all of which have sought support from Washington, long the pre-eminent naval power in Asia.
China defends its carrier program by saying it is the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that has not developed such vessels and that it has a huge coastline and vast maritime assets to defend. Beijing has also said its carriers would be employed in international humanitarian efforts.
While Chinese carriers could challenge U.S. naval supremacy in Asia, China still has far to go in bringing such systems into play, experts said. The U.S. operates 11 aircraft carrier battle groups and its carriers are far bigger and more advanced.
In contrast to China’s slew of new frigates, submarines, and other warships, the carrier will actually add little to the country’s naval capabilities, according to Western analysts.
“At best, it could makes some waves in the South China Sea and intimidate the poorly equipped navies of Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines,” said Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.