Feb. 6 (UPI) -- China could soon build four nuclear aircraft carriers to bolster its presence in the South China Sea, a plan that could increase the risk of maritime clashes, experts say.
Chinese military experts said this week Beijing wants to deploy six aircraft "battle groups" to sea by 2035, and four of the six will be nuclear-powered, the South China Morning Post reported Wednesday.
"China's nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with [Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System-like systems] are expected to join the navy by 2035, bringing the total number of carriers to at least six -- although only four will work at the front line," said Wang Yunfei, a retired People's Liberation Army destroyer naval officer, according to the Post.
"The country needs to keep developing until it is at the same level as the United States."
Electromagnetic catapults are expected to be part of all of China's new carriers. The launch system can launch more aircraft than older technology.
China currently has only one aircraft carrier in deployment -- the Liaoning, commissioned in 2012. The Type 001A, Beijing's first self-developed carrier, is undergoing testing.
President Xi Jinping, who began ruling the country without term limits in 2017, has ordered the military to modernize by 2035, and become a top fighting force by 2050.
China could be reducing ground forces while spending more on naval expansion, Voice of America reported.
PLA ground forces now represent less than half of China's 2.26 million troops, according to Xinhua news agency.
By contrast, China has increased the number of naval ships, from 512 to 714, since 2012.
The possibility of a clash with the United States could rise; the two sides have been at odds over Chinese activities in the South China Sea, and the United States regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations near China-claimed islands.
"The South China Sea is the only area where the U.S. and China are engaged in confrontational postures," said Sun Yun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington.