Xi made the remarks during an unannounced visit to observe naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea yesterday, state media reported today (Friday, April 13).
The disputed waters remain a potential flashpoint, with the US saying China’s activities in the area pose a threat to freedom of navigation. Beijing has built an archipelago of artificial islands capable of hosting military equipment throughout the strategically vital waterway.
Footage of Xi’s visit on state broadcaster CCTV showed the president watching jets taking off from China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and joining sailors for a meal.
In a speech to troops, Xi said China’s task to build a powerful navy “has never been as urgent as it is today”.
Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea despite rival claims from several of its Southeast Asian neighbours, including the Philippines.
Xi’s visit came as China announced plans to hold live-fire naval drills next week in the narrow strait separating the mainland from Taiwan, an act that could ratchet up tensions with the island.
“Live-fire military manoeuvres will take place in the Taiwan Strait on April 18, 2018, between 8am and midnight,” the maritime safety administration of Chinese province of Fujian said in a statement.
Chinese warplanes conducted 25 drills around Taiwan between August 2016 and mid-December last year, according to the island’s government.
The Liaoning and other vessels passed through the Taiwan Strait on March 20 — the day Xi warned against any attempts to divide China.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said it would keep a close eye on the upcoming exercise.
“The defence ministry stresses that the military can comprehensively monitor and respond to the regional situation to ensure national security. We ask the public to rest assured,” it said in a statement.