The People’s Liberation Army - the largest army in the world - is hugely secretive about its defence programmes, which benefit from a big military budget boosted by the nation’s runaway economic growth. – AP Photo

HONG KONG: A top Chinese military official has confirmed that Beijing is building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence from China’s secretive armed forces.

In an exclusive interview published Tuesday, the Hong Kong Commercial Daily quoted Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, as saying the 300 metre refurbished Soviet carrier “is being built, but it has not been completed.”

He declined to elaborate although there has been wide speculation that the vessel was nearly finished after the ship, then called the Varyag, was reportedly purchased in 1998.

It is currently based in the northeast port city of Dalian.

The ship, which an expert on China’s military has said would be used for training and as a model for a future indigenously-built ship, was originally built for the Soviet navy. Construction was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Hong Kong paper quoted anonymous sources as saying the carrier will be launched by the end of June at the earliest.

Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA’s general staff, told the newspaper that the carrier would not enter other nations’ territories, in accordance with Beijing’s defensive military strategy.

“All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers - they are symbols of a great nation,” he was quoted as saying.

But China is involved in a number of simmering marine territorial disputes.

China has claimed mineral rights around the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and argued that foreign navies cannot sail through the area without Beijing’s permission.

In September, Japan and China clashed over the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, located in the East China Sea.

In April, Admiral Robert Willard, head of US Pacific Command, said China’s navy had adopted a less aggressive stance in the Pacific after protests from Washington and other nations in the region.

The PLA - the largest army in the world - is hugely secretive about its defence programmes, which benefit from a big military budget boosted by the nation’s runaway economic growth.

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