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U.S. says watching China's naval expansion closely

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States would like to have a better idea about the intentions behind China’s naval build-up, a senior U.S. navy officer said on Sunday, but downplayed worries over Chinese plans for an aircraft carrier.

In this file photo Xie Zengling, a co-leader of the special force on board of Chinese navy's DDG-171 Haikou destroyer, salutes as he poses for the camera in Sanya, Hainan province December 25, 2008. REUTERS/China Daily

“The advancement and the growth of the PLA Navy is consistent with China’s economic advancement and its role in a globalized world,” U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead told a news conference in Beijing.

“I think it is important however that as we create a naval capability, indeed any military capability, that there should be clear communications with regard to what the intentions of that capability are,” he added.

“That’s why visits like mine are important,” Roughead said, ahead of a trip to the northern port city of Qingdao to attend celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army’s navy.

The United States has long complained that China’s increased military spending lacks transparency, charges Beijing denies.

This year’s U.S. Defense Department annual report on Chinese military capabilities said China was making advances in denying outsiders access to offshore areas and was improving its nuclear, space and cyber warfare capabilities.

This week a Chinese admiral told state media that China would accelerate development of warships, stealth submarines and long-range missiles as the country makes a stronger navy a priority in military modernization.

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Chinese media have also highlighted the government’s hopes to build an aircraft carrier, seen as the badge of a mature ocean-going power, prompting concern in the region about China’s military ambitions and how that could alter the balance of power.

“There has been no doubt in my mind that the acquisition of an aircraft carrier and carrier aviation was something that was clearly an ambition and an objective of the PLA Navy,” Roughead said.

“The advent of an aircraft carrier on the part of the PLA Navy to me really doesn’t change the nature of our operations at all,” he added. “The real issue is: how are those aircraft carriers used, and what is the intent of that capability?”

Tensions between the United States and China rose last month over an incident in the South China Sea in which five Chinese ships jostled with the Impeccable, U.S. Navy surveillance vessel.

The United States said its ship was in international waters. But Beijing said the U.S. ship was in the wrong and Chinese naval officers argued that it violated their country’s sovereignty.

“It’s important that we adhere to international law even though there may be some different interpretations. We must continue to operate in accordance with the rules of the road ... and most importantly that we operate safely,” Roughead said.

Still, the admiral said he wanted greater cooperation with China in areas like search and rescue and humanitarian missions, highlighting joint efforts to combat piracy in the seas off Somalia.

“The opportunity for our navies to work together against the threat of piracy is very important,” he added.

Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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