“In the coming five years, our military will push forward preparations for military conflict in every strategic direction,” said Liang Guanglie in an interview published by several state-backed newspapers in China. “We may be living in peaceful times, but we can never forget war, never send the horses south or put the bayonets and guns away,” Mr Liang added.
China repeatedly says it is planning a “peaceful rise” but the recent pace and scale of its military modernisation has alarmed many of its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific, including Japan which described China's military build-up as a “global concern” this month.
Mr Liang's remarks come at a time of increasingly difficult relations between the Chinese and US armed forces which a three-day visit by his counterpart Robert Gates is intended to address. A year ago China froze substantive military relations in protest at US arms sales to Taiwan and relations deteriorated further this summer when China objected to US plans to deploy one of its nuclear supercarriers, the USS George Washington, into the Yellow Sea off the Korean peninsula.
China also announced this month that it was preparing to launch its own aircraft carrier next year in a signal that China is determined to punch its weight as a rising superpower. The news came a year earlier than many US defence analysts had predicted.
China is also working on a “carrier-killing” ballistic missile that could sink US carriers from afar, fundamentally reordering the balance of power in a region that has been dominated by the US since the end of the Second World War.
A US Navy commander, Admiral Robert Willard, told Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper this week that he believes the Chinese anti-ship missile, the Dong Feng 21, has already achieved “initial operational capability”, although it would require years of testing.
Analysts remain divided over whether China is initiating an Asian arms race. Even allowing for undeclared spending, China's annual defence budget is still less than one-sixth of America's $663bn a year, or less than half the US figure when expressed as a percentage of GDP.
However in a speech earlier this year Mr Gates warned that China's new weapons, including its carrier-killing missile, “threaten America's primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific”, underscoring the difficulties that lie ahead as China and the US seek to contain growing strategic frictions.
As China modernises, Mr Liang pledged that its armed forces would also increasingly use homegrown Chinese technology, which analysts say still lags behind Western technology even as China races to catch up.
“The modernisation of the Chinese military cannot depend on others, and cannot be bought,” Mr Liang added, “In the next five years, our economy and society will develop faster, boosting comprehensive national power. We will take the opportunity and speed up modernisation of the military.”