BEIJING - President Hu Jintao said China should become a "maritime power" as he opened a Communist Party congress on Thursday against a backdrop of simmering territorial disputes with its neighbors.
"We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China's maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power," Hu said in his speech to more than 2,200 delegates to the congress in Beijing.
Hu's comments were likely to feed alarm among China's neighbors, some of whom have watched warily as Beijing builds up its military and has become embroiled in offshore territorial spats.
A dispute with Tokyo over a Japanese-controlled group of islands over which they both claim sovereignty has chilled relations between the two Asian powers, while tensions with the Philippines and Vietnam have flared in the South China Sea.
While noting China's commitment to peaceful and cooperative foreign relations, Hu said it must continue a campaign to build up its military power that has seen Beijing pour huge sums of funding into developing its fighting capacities.
Citing "interwoven problems affecting its (China's) survival", Hu said China must build a "strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China's international standing".
He called for Beijing to step up military preparedness in general, and the armed forces' technological abilities in particular, saying China's most important task was to be able to "win a local war in an information age".
The congress meets every five years and this year's gathering will culminate in the confirmation of a new slate of party and national leaders for the next decade, widely expected to be headed by current Vice President Xi Jinping.