BEIJING (Reuters) - China is building its second aircraft carrier, which is expected to take six years, and the country aims to have at least four such ships, Chinese and Hong Kong media reports said on Sunday. After two decades of double-digit increases in the military budget, China's admirals plan to develop a full blue-water navy capable of defending growing economic interests as well as disputed territory in the South and East China Seas. The country's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning - a Soviet-era ship bought from Ukraine in 1998 and re-fitted in a Chinese shipyard - has long been a symbol of China's naval build-up. Successfully operating the 60,000-tonne Liaoning is the first step in what state media and some military experts believe will be the deployment of locally built carriers by 2020. In comments carried on Chinese news websites, Wang Min, the Communist Party boss of the northeastern province of Liaoning, where the first carrier is based, said the second carrier was being built in the port city of Dalian. Its construction would take about six years, and in future China would have a fleet of at least four carriers, Wang told members of the province's legislature on Saturday, the reports added. Dalian is the port where the existing carrier was re-fitted for use by the Chinese navy. Some of the reports about the new carrier were apparently latter removed from the Internet, as links to the stories did not work. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, citing unnamed military sources, said the reports may have been removed either because the government wanted the construction to be low profile or because Wang did not have the authority for such an announcement. The Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. The Liaoning successfully executed more than 100 tests, including those of its combat systems, during drills in the disputed South China Sea last month. The exercises off the coast of Hainan Island marked not only the first time China had sent a carrier into the South China Sea but the first time it had maneuvered with the kind of strike group of escort ships U.S. carriers deploy, according to regional military officers and analysts. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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