In a a move likely to stoke concerns about the nation's military expansion and growing territorial assertiveness, China's first aircraft carrier embarked on its inaugural sea trial on August 10. Beijing only recently confirmed it was revamping an old Soviet ship to be its first carrier and has sought to play down the vessel's capability, saying it will mainly be used for training and "research."
The voyage comes amid heightened tensions over a number of maritime territorial disputes involving China, notably in the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas and is claimed by several countries.
The defense ministry said the carrier's first sailing would be brief, and that the ship would afterwards return to the northeastern port of Dalian for more "refit and test work."
Andrei Chang, head of the Kanwa Information Center, which monitors China's military, said it would probably test whether the engines worked, and that on-off sea trials were likely to continue for another year or two.
China's People's Liberation Army -- the largest armed force in the world -- is extremely secretive about its defense programs, which benefit from a huge and expanding military budget boosted by the nation's runaway economic growth. Earlier this year, China announced military spending would rise 12.7% to 601.1 billion yuan ($91.7 billion) in 2011.
In January it revealed it was developing its first stealth fighter jet, and it is also working on an anti-ballistic missile capable of piercing the defenses of even the sturdiest U.S. naval ships.
The rapid expansion has caused concern among China's neighbors. Last week, Japan voiced concern over the country's widening naval reach and what it called the "opaqueness" of Beijing's military budget. However, Beijing has repeatedly sought to alleviate fears over its pursuit of sophisticated weaponry and the official Xinhua news agency said the new carrier posed no threat to any other country. "Building 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," it said.
"Even if China developed an aircraft carrier with full combat capacity in the future, it will not pose any threat to other countries."
China only provided the first official acknowledgment of the carrier in June when Chen Bingde, the nation's top military official, gave an interview to a Hong Kong newspaper. But media reports and military analysts had said for years China was busy refitting an old Soviet aircraft carrier.
China has become increasingly assertive in its claims over the East China Sea and South China Sea, most of which it views as its maritime territory, but where several other Asian nations have competing claims. The issue has heated up recently with run-ins between China and fellow South China Sea claimants Vietnam and the Philippines, sparking concern among coastal countries and the United States. Yin Zhuo, a military expert, told state television that the key to creating a fully operational carrier was aircraft pilot training. "It can take three years to cultivate a qualified pilot... and then the pilot needs to practice on the carrier, which may take another year," he said.
China reportedly bought the 300-meter (990-foot) carrier's immense armored hull -- with no engine, electrics or propeller -- from the Ukraine in 1998. Chang said the vessel did not appear to have arresting gear -- the mechanical system that rapidly decelerates a plane as it lands -- in photos he had seen. "That's very strange. It's very complicated technology and the Chinese haven't installed it -- we couldn't find it," he said. "That means they can't land any fighters, probably only helicopters." However other analysts say the ship is almost ready to support combat missions. "The Varyag will carry an advanced Chinese... radar system, which will only be featured on the next US carrier that will not join the U.S. fleet until 2015, said Rick Fisher, a Chinese military expert at the U.S. International Assessment and Strategy Center.
According to Chinese state television, the carrier will not be officially named until it carries out its first formal duty.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011