June 9, 2011 — -- A top Chinese official for the first time revealed that the growing Chinese military will soon launch its first aircraft carrier.
"An aircraft carrier has been under construction, but has not been completed," China's Defense Minister Chen Bingde told a Hong Kong newspaper Tuesday in a rare admission for the secretive Chinese government.
The Pentagon has been long aware of Chinese ambitions to build not just one, but multiple aircraft carriers as part of an effort to modernize its military force, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense said today. The U.S. will "maintain the military capabilities necessary to protect our interests, defend our allies, and deter potential adversaries from acts of aggression and intimidation," the spokesperson said.
The 990 ft., 67,500 ton carrier, long-rumored to be in development, is being constructed in the north-east port of Dalian, the report said. While Chen refused to give a specific date, the vessel is reportedly near completion and tests are expected to start later this year. It took an army of workers five years to transform the Soviet-era hull, which was initially bought by a company with ties to the Chinese army who claimed they were building a floating casino destined for Macau.
"All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers -- they are symbols of a great nation," Chen's assistant chief, Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, assistant chief of the general staff, told the Hong Kong Commercial Daily. But Jianguo also emphasized that after the carrier was deployed it would "definitely not sail to other countries' territorial waters."
The carrier revelation comes at a complicated time for U.S.-Chinese relations.
Earlier this month U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that military relations between the two countries are now on "a more positive trajectory," but admitted the military relationship was "underdeveloped." In May, a report out of a Washington, D.C., thinktank predicted a new stealth fighter, secretly developed by the Chinese and rarely seen, could be the first to legitimately challenge U.S. stealth fighters in air dominance.
The day after that report came out, ABC News revealed that Pakistani officials hinted that China wanted to take a look at the top secret U.S. stealth helicopter that crashed during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden May 2.
Less than two weeks later, Defense Minister Bingde appeared to attempt to allay American anxiety by telling the National Defense University, "Although China's defense and military development has come a long way in recent years, a gaping gap between you and us remains... China never intends to challenge the U.S."
However, the Pentagon spokesperson said, "We remain concerned about the lack of transparency from China of the force projection and anti-access/area denial capabilities it is acquiring, the intentions that underline those acquisitions, and the resources dedicated to the task."
"The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century, which makes it as important as any bilateral relationship in the world," the spokesperson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.