After a brief delay, China has launched its first aircraft carrier, a refitted version of the Soviet carrier the Varyag.
The carrier, widely expected to be renamed the Shi Lang, reportedly left its shipyard at Dalian Port on Wednesday morning for its first sea trial. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, military sources have said that ‘the trial is in line with the carrier's refitting schedule and will not take a long time. Refitting work will continue after the vessel has returned to the port.’
‘The Liaoning Provincial Maritime Safety Administration publicized a notice restricting navigation in waters off the Dalian coast, saying that vessels are forbidden from traveling through an area of sea 13.25 nautical miles wide and 22 nautical miles long in the northern Yellow Sea and Liaodong Bay from Aug. 10 to 14,’ Xinhua reported.
The launch comes at a sensitive time, with China’s neighbours growing increasingly concerned both over the pace of the country’s military build-up, and also the way Beijing has been increasingly muscular in pushing its territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea. China has made expansive claims to the waters, claims that neighbours including Vietnam and the Philippines strongly dispute.
According to a commentary posted today by Xinhua, the aircraft carrier is aimed simply at defending China’s extensive coastline, and doesn’t mark a shift in China’s military posture.
‘(B)uilding a strong navy that is commensurate with China's rising status is a necessary step and an inevitable choice for the country to safeguard its increasingly globalized national interests. China has told the world repeatedly that it will never seek hegemony, no matter how developed it is,’ the commentary said. ‘China has been devoted to world peace and will remain a force for peace. Chinese navy fleets had by June escorted 3,953 ships from countries all over the world through the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, among which 47 percent were foreign commercial ships.’
Still, concerns linger over the lack of clarity over China’s military spending, which is believed to be significantly higher than the official figure of 601.1 billion yuan($93.7 billion) for this year (which itself marks a jump of 12.7 percent on a year earlier). Such concerns have been stoked by a number of defence surprises over the past year, including a test flight by China’s first stealth fighter, the J-20, during a visit to Beijing by then US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and revelations over the progress in China’s anti-ship missile capabilities.
Meanwhile, senior Chinese military officers have indicated that they intend to develop their own aircraft carrier, development that is expected to draw on some lessons learned through the purchase of the Varyag, and potentially also Britain’s Ark Royal.
But such developments face significant technical challenges.
‘A seaworthy vessel and operational naval fighters will provide the backbone of the Chinese navy's evolving carrier force. But they are not, in themselves, adequate for a useful carrier force. Leaving aside the huge manpower, planning and logistical demands of a modern aircraft carrier, there are additional hardware needs that China hasn’t yet met,’ notes Diplomat analyst David Axe.
‘To enable true, long-range carrier operations, the People's Liberation Army Navy still needs to develop, build and field carrier-capable airborne command-and-control aircraft plus aerial tankers and electronic-warfare planes. Without these so-called “enablers,” Shi Lang and her J-15s represent little more than training assets, with few real-world applications.’