China is building two indigenous aircraft carriers as part of a broad modernization program that has rattled nerves regionally, sources said on Wednesday, as the government confirmed it was refitting an old Soviet carrier for training.China is ramping up military spending as the United States discusses cutting its defense budget, though the U.S. still far outspends China on security and is much more technologically advanced.
President Hu Jintao has made the navy a keystone of China's military ramp-up, and the carriers will be among the most visible signs of the country's rising military prowess.
"Two aircraft carriers are being built at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai," one source with ties to China's Communist Party leadership told Reuters, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the program.
The Defense Ministry has only officially confirmed the existence of one carrier, which was bought from Ukraine in 1998 and was once destined to become a floating casino.
That will be used for training and research purposes, ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said, seeking to reassure other countries that China would stick to its defensive military policy.
But he said China it had a right to protect its extensive maritime territory and coast.
"This is the sacred responsibility of China's armed forces," Geng said, in a statement carrier on the ministry's website (http://www.mod.gov.cn).
"Building a carrier is extremely complex. We are currently refitting an old aircraft carrier, to be used for research and testing," Geng said.
"An aircraft carrier is a weapons platform; it can be used for offensive or defensive purposes. It can also be used to maintain global peace and for rescue and relief work," he added.
While Geng gave no timetable for starting sea trials, he said pilots were being trained to operate from the carrier.
Sources with ties to the Communist Party and the military said that ship would likely be based in the southern island province of Hainan, which sits atop of the vital trade lanes of the sensitive South China Sea.
The news comes as China has been flexing its muscles more aggressively in those waters, where a territorial dispute with Taiwan and several nearby countries including Vietnam and the Philippines has festered for years.