Posted by: Schuyler R. Thorpe | August 27, 2011

China Launches First Aircraft Carrier

China launches first aircraft carrier on maiden sea trial

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s first aircraft carrier held its sea trial Wednesday, a step likely to stoke patriotic pride at home and jitters abroad about Beijing’s naval ambitions.

The long-awaited debut of the vessel, refitted from a former Soviet craft, marked a step forward in China’s long-term plan to build a carrier force that can project power into the Asian region, where seas are spanned by busy shipping lanes and thorny territorial disputes.

“Its symbolic significance outweighs its practical significance,” said Ni Lexiong, an expert on Chinese maritime policy at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

“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,” he said in a telephone interview.

The carrier “left its shipyard in Dalian Port in northeast Liaoning province Wednesday morning to start its first sea trial,” said the official Xinhua news agency, describing the trip as only a tentative trial run for the unfinished ship.

“Military sources said that the first sea trial was in line with the schedule of the carrier refitting project and would not take a long time,” the agency said.

The aircraft carrier, which is about 300 meters (984 feet) long, plowed through fog and sounded its horn three times as it left the dock, Xinhua said on its military news microblog.

In an interview published this week, Chinese navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo said his country intended to build an air carrier group, but the task would be long and difficult.

“The aircraft carriers will form a very strong battle group,” Yin told the China Economic Weekly. “But the construction and functional demands of an aircraft carrier are extremely complex,” he told the magazine.

Training crew and, eventually, pilots for the carriers was a big challenge, said Yin.

PRESTIGE AND POWER

Last month, China’s defense ministry confirmed the government was refitting the old, unfinished Soviet vessel bought from Ukraine’s government, and sources told Reuters it was also building two of its own carriers.

“One of the biggest drivers behind this is prestige,” Ashley Townshend at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney told Reuters in an interview before the debut of the vessel.

“The Chinese debate on sea power has been focused on its coming of age as a great power, and great powers have great navies, and great navies have aircraft carriers,” he said.

If Beijing was serious about having a viable carrier strike group, it would need three carriers, said Townshend.

China would also have to develop support ships and aircraft for any carrier group, he said, noting it would take some 10 years to develop a viable carrier strike group.

In China’s neighborhood, India and Thailand already have aircraft carriers, and Australia has ordered two multipurpose carriers. The United States operates 11 carriers.

Earlier, a Pentagon spokesman played down the likelihood of any immediate leaps from China’s nascent carrier program.

But that is just one part of China’s naval modernization drive, which has forged ahead while other powers tighten their military budgets to cope with debt woes.

China has been building new submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles as part of its naval modernization.

The country’s growing reach at sea is triggering regional jitters that have fed into longstanding territorial disputes, and could speed up military expansion across Asia.

In the past year, China has had run-ins at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The incidents — boat crashes and charges of territorial incursions — have been minor, but the diplomatic reaction often heated.

Last week, Japan warned that China’s naval forces were likely to increase activities around its waters, prompting Beijing to accuse Tokyo of deliberately exaggerating the Chinese military threat.

“This is showing to the whole world that China’s maritime mobility is expanding drastically. This is showing that China is in the process of acquiring capability to control South China Sea as well as East China Sea,” said Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor at Japan’s Tokai University about the carrier trial.

China’s defense budget has shot up nearly 70 percent over five years, while Japan, struggling with public debt, has cut military outlays by 3 percent over the same period, a Japanese government report said.

A senior U.S. Navy intelligence officer earlier this year said he believed China wanted to start fielding multiple aircraft carriers over the next decade, with the goal of becoming a global naval power capable of projecting power around the world by mid-century.

“A single, solitary aircraft carrier floating on the sea, without the accompanying forces, doesn’t constitute a battle force,” said Ni, the Shanghai professor.

“It would be a sitting duck if you tried to send it out.”

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