China will "seriously consider" building aircraft carriers to protect its vast maritime territory, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense said on Tuesday.
Huang Xueping made the remarks at a news conference called to announce details of a Chinese flotilla that will leave for Somali waters on Friday to protect Chinese ships from pirates.
Asked whether the Chinese navy's first deployment abroad is a good opportunity to build a carrier, Huang said the government would seriously consider the issue.
"Aircraft carriers are a symbol of a country's overall national strength as well as the competitiveness of its naval force," Huang said.
"China has a long coastline and the sacred duty of China's armed forces is to safeguard the country's marine safety and sovereignty over coastal areas and territorial seas," he said.
China has a coastline of 18,000 km and marine territory of 3 million sq km, nearly a third of its land area.
About 30 aircraft carriers are in service around the world, and China is the only one among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that does not have one.
Major General Qian Lihua, director of the foreign affairs office of the ministry, told the UK's Financial Times last month that China has every right to possess carriers.
"Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike other countries, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach," he said.
As for the Chinese naval mission in Somali waters, senior military officials said yesterday the navy is "confident and capable of fulfilling the task".
Senior Colonel Ma Luping said the Chinese warships might encounter complex problems as "the situation there is complicated". "But there is nothing we cannot overcome," he said.
Ma said there are about 1,000 pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters, belonging to 25 to 30 groups. Among them, four groups are believed to be relatively well-equipped and organized.
According to Rear Admiral Xiao Xinnian, the two destroyers - Haikou and Wuhan - and a large supply vessel Weishanhu will carry two helicopters, missiles and cannons and the crew includes special force soldiers. They will leave from Sanya, Hainan province.
"These are enough to deal with the pirates," Xiao said.
While the mission is reported to be for three months, Huang said the duration would depend on the UN mandate and conditions in the area.
The warships are mainly deployed to help Chinese vessels passing the area and ships delivering international humanitarian assistance; but China is willing to work with others to battle pirates in the region, he said.
The deployment comes as piracy off Somali waters has endangered one of the world's busiest sea routes.
A fifth of the 1,265 Chinese ships that have passed through Somali waters in the first 11 months of this year faced pirate threats, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said last week.
Seven of the ships were hijacked, and pirates were still holding a Chinese fishing vessel with 18 sailors, he said. It was seized in Kenyan fishing waters on Nov 14.
The fate of the ship remains uncertain as Chinese agricultural and diplomatic officials are negotiating with the pirates, the Ministry of Transport said.
The maritime police know the exact location of the vessel, said Du Yongdong, head of the maritime search and rescue center of the ministry.
Last week, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to authorize countries to fight piracy in Somali waters, and even on land, to free one of the world's busiest commercial sea channels of the menace.
Somali officials have welcomed Chinese naval deployment to tackle piracy.