The commander of China's air force said today Beijing would begin transforming the service from a territorial defense force into a more aggressive one with greater capabilities to attack beyond China's borders, the New China News Agency reported.

Lt. Gen. Liu Shunyao said the air force would strive to "realize as soon as possible a change from territorial defense to a combination of defense and offense." In separate comments today, on the 50th anniversary of the air force, President Jiang Zemin echoed Liu's comments.

Liu's remarks were yet another indication of China's plans to use its military might to expand its influence in Asia. China has recently showcased in-flight refueling technology that will allow its fighter jets to patrol far into the South China Sea. China's navy has announced plans to transform itself slowly from a coastal force into a blue water navy, which would allow it to use its military power in faraway oceans. China's missile forces can strike almost anywhere in Asia and were given a boost over the summer with the successful testing of the Dongfeng-31, a ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 miles.

Much of China's military modernization is aimed at the United States. Western analysts say China hopes to make Washington think twice about backing Taiwan--which Beijing considers a breakaway province--in any potential conflict with Beijing. China is seeking a limited deterrence--through the purchase of Russian state-of-the-art anti-ship missiles, the development of its own missile systems and research into satellite and cyber warfare to challenge U.S. superiority in Asia.

China's air force has had a troubled history, especially since China began to modernize its military forces in 1978 as part of a plan to improve its economy. It has had difficulty developing aircraft that can match international standards.

One of the newest mainstays of its forces is the Russian Su-27 fighter. In 1996, China purchased a license to build 200 Su-27s in China. Earlier this year, China also signed contracts to purchase 40 of Russia's state-of-the-art Su-30 two-seater, multipurpose fighters. Delivery is expected next year. China buys about $1 billion of weapons from Russia each year.