China's first aircraft carrier sets sail

Rebuilt Soviet-era craft embarks on maiden voyage amid concerns about China's growing military muscle.

      The Varyag was towed more than 28,000km, around the Cape of Good Hope, to reach China [EPA]

    China's first aircraft carrier has begun its inaugural sea trial, a mission that underscores Beijing's naval ambitions and raises concern about its military influence in regional territorial disputes.

    The carrier left Dalian port in northeast Liaoning province early on Wednesday, the stae-run Xinhua news agency reported. It was unclear how long the trial would last, with one expert claiming it could be as short as one hour.

    China has been rebuilding the roughly 300-metre-long, Soviet-built craft for almost a decade.

    "Its symbolic significance outweighs its practical significance," Ni Lexiong, an expert on Chinese maritime
    policy at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told the Reuters news agency.

    "We're already a maritime power, and so we need an appropriate force, whether that's aircraft carriers or battleships, just like the United States or the British Empire did."

    The show of force by China had already begun to make regional waves on Wednesday. Taiwan, in a preview for its defence exhibition, displayed its advanced Hsiung Feng III missile in front of a billboard depicting a missile-riddled aircraft carrier with the words "aircraft carrier killer" written above. Taiwan has previously deployed the missile on frigates but has never advertised it as an anti-carrier weapon.

    New battle group planned

    China has been investing heavily in the modernization of its military for more than a decade. The government plans to build at least two of its own aircraft carriers, military sources have said. 

    Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo told the China Economic Weekly this week that new carriers, already under construction, "will form a very strong battle group ... but the construction and functional demands of an aircraft carrier are extremely complex".

    Some defence experts believe China plans to build up to four carriers, with preparations at a Shanghai shipyard underway. 

    China will need around 10 years to build and deploy the support vessels and aircraft neede to form a full carrier strike group, Ashley Townshend, of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, told Reuters.

    Floating casino becomes warship

    China acquisition of the carrier at auction in the late 1990s was carried out under opaque circumstances.

    The ship, originally named the Varyag, was commissioned by Moscow in the late 1980s. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the Varyag was transferred to Ukraine but without engines, weapons, a rudder or much of its electronics.

    Ukraine put the craft up for auction in 1998, and the successful bidder was the Chong Lot Travel Agency, a small, Hong Kong-based company with ties to China's military and naval industry.

    The new owners said the ship would be used as a floating casino in Macau, and the Chinese government maintained that claim even after Macau denied Chong Lot a casino license and said the Varyag could not dock in its port.

    After a journey of more than 28,000km from the Black Sea, and around the Cape of Good Hope, the Varyag docked in Dalian, not Macau. In June, China officially acknowledged it was building an aircraft carrier.

    Carriers make region jumpy

    In the past year, China has seen a flare-up in territorial spats with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam and had its relations strained with South Korea, all of which have sought support from Washington, long the
    pre-eminent naval power in the Pacific.

    Nearby naval powers India and Thailand already have own their own aircraft carriers. The United States has 11.

    Japan seems particularly concerned; China's defence budget has increased by 70 per cent over the past five years, while Japan's has shrunk by roughly 3 per cent.

    Xinhua said refitting and test work would continue on the carrier when it returns from its short sea trial.

    The Xinhua report did not say how long the sea trial would last, although a statement on the website of the Liaoning Maritime Safety Authority said "all vessels will be barred from entering'' a small section of the sea
    off Dalian for roughly five days.

    There had been earlier online reports in China that the test was set to start last weekend, but it may have been delayed by a tropical storm that swept through the area.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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