The Chinese government has for the first time officially revealed that it has launched a programme to build an aircraft carrier, an already widely-known project that has recently stirred debate over China’s naval intentions and capabilities.

A report released this year by the State Oceanic Administration said China’s progress had even been quicker than expected, with the first Chinese-made carrier set to be ready in 2014, a year ahead of the schedule.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun, says China’s leaders decided at a meeting of the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo in April 2009 to back the

programme, which has been largely kept quiet, as part of a larger strategy for China to “build itself up as a maritime power.”

Some Chinese leaders were reluctant to announce the plans, the report said, because it would “fan concerns in neighbouring countries”.

The military, however, had been pushing for a public announcement. In March, China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie said China’s navy was weak and hinted that China needed an aircraft carrier "soon", without revealing further details.

The Ocean Development Report said projecting power at sea was “indispensible to accomplishing the great resurgence of the Chinese people,” according to the newspaper. The report also calls for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to be made ready by 2020.

Construction had begun at “six military-affiliated companies and research institutes in Shanghai and other locations.” A full-scale model of an aircraft carrier had been constructed in Wuhan, in central Hubei province, to test radar systems, while preparations to train pilots for landing and taking off aircraft at sea would be carried out in northeastern Liaoning and Xian in Shaanxi province.

The report said having an aircraft carrier was not only required to close China’s yawning gap with American naval might, but also to “heighten patriotic sentiment” at home.

The announcement comes against the backdrop of rising naval tensions between China and several of its neighbours in recent months. Territorial tensions over claims in the South China Sea have resurfaced, as have maritime disputes between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands.

On Friday, Japan announced a new defence policy, its first since 2004, which warned of a growing military threat to the international community from China, and indicated that Japan would strengthen security arrangements around disputed islands.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Friday strongly hit out at the defence policy. “A certain country has no right to act as a representative of the international community and make irresponsible remarks on China's

development,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said. “China unswervingly follows the path of peaceful development, and its defense policy is defensive in nature.”

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