China will have an aircraft carrier "very soon," a top Chinese naval officer told a newspaper published Friday, fueling speculation over a pending official announcement on the long-awaited project.
The Global Times newspaper cited east China fleet commander Adm. Xu Hongmeng as saying China possessed both the ability and motivation to build a carrier — a weapon system that is strongly backed by the navy but somewhat less enthusiastically by the People's Liberation Army's top commanders.
"China really needs a carrier. Both technologically and economically, China already has the capacity to build a carrier," said Xu, who was quoted while attending the national legislature's annual session in Beijing on Thursday.
"China will very soon have its own aircraft carrier," he told the paper, published by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily.
Xu's remarks came on the day the central government announced its 2009 budget, including a 14.9 percent rise in military spending this year to 480.68 billion yuan ($70.27 billion). No breakdown of the defense budget was provided.
Xu did not say when a carrier might be added to the fleet or whether work had already begun on one, saying only, "as for the specific construction situation, you need to ask the shipyard."
Beijing has been researching an aircraft carrier for years, having bought and towed to China a mothballed Russian carrier, the Varyag, in 1998. The PLA is also rumored to have purchased four carrier landing systems and up to 50 Russian Su-33 carrier-based aircraft.
Strategically, a carrier is seen mainly as a deterrent to U.S. intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, although Chinese experts say it would mainly serve to police the 1.16 million square miles (3 million square kilometers) of sea claimed by Beijing as its maritime territory.
A carrier would also provide vital air cover in the event of a conflict farther from China's shores, either in the South China Sea, where it has feuding territorial claims with other nations, or in the crucial sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.