It's full speed ahead for China's blue-water ambitions

By Yang Jian  |   2011-8-30  |     NEWSPAPER EDITION

The story appears on Page B8 - B9
Aug 30, 2011

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China's first aircraft carrier, the 300-meter-long Varyag, has steamed onto the world stage for sea trials. China becomes the last of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to deploy an aircraft carrier.

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THE successful sea trials of China's first aircraft carrier opens a new chapter of maritime history, and Yang Jian reports that the nation's dream of carrier-capability dates back over 40 years and has been anything but plain sailing.

China's first aircraft carrier has steamed onto the world's blue-water stage for sea trials as the rest of the world watched and Chinese cheered that their nation has entered a higher military tier after more than a decade of effort.

With the maiden voyage of the refitted 300-meter-long Varyag (to be officially christened later with a Chinese name), which was purchased unfinished from Ukraine, China becomes the last of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the 10th nation to deploy an aircraft carrier. The United States has 11; Russia and India each have one; Italy has two; the other countries have one.

The successful sea trials began on August 11, and the carrier is now undergoing further refitting in Dalian, its home port in northeastern China's Liaoning Province. It will be used primarily as a training platform and for scientific research and experiments.

Acquiring an aircraft carrier has been a long and complicated process that started more than 40 years ago and involved many setbacks.

China's former Naval Commander Admiral Liu Huaqing, known as the "Father of China's Aircraft Carrier" because of his great support for the program, said in his memoir that "China launched its initial plan for a carrier as early as 1970."

The initial efforts were mainly importing decommissioned vessels from other countries. Actually, the Varyag, a half-built Soviet-era warship, is just one member of China's four-member family of aircraft carriers. And it's the only one in service.

Since the 1980s, China has imported three carriers, including two decommissioned, from the former Soviet Union and one from Australia.

Two decommissioned Russian vessels were imported and converted into theme parks in 1998, the Kiev in Tianjin Municipality in the north and the Minsk in Shenzhen in southern Guangdong Province.

In its first carrier import, China bought the retired Melbourne from the Australian Navy in 1985, but found the old carrier without armaments was nothing more than a pile of scrap metal, so it was dismantled in a shipyard in Guangzhou and the iron was recycled.

In 1998 China bought its second aircraft carrier, the Varyag, now the first commissioned aircraft carrier.

China's aircraft carrier mission is ongoing.

Last December, a UK-based Chinese businessman Lam Kin-bong bid 5 million pounds (US$8 million) for a junk light aircraft carrier, the HMS Invincible, and planned to convert it into a floating school, but the bid was rejected by the UK Ministry of Defence.

Recently, a Hong Kong-based company bid for another retired British aircraft carrier and if the bid is accepted, the firm plans to convert it into a luxury goods exhibition center.

The biggest shareholder in the bidding company is Huang Guangyu, China's home appliance tycoon, who is now imprisoned on corruption charges.

Businessman Lam also submitted a bid on this carrier and the result is yet to be announced.

"China has been closely studying the experiences of other countries in the aircraft carrier area, so it will undoubtedly acquire adequate experience," said Pavel Kamennov, an expert at the Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Of all the imported carriers, the Varyag had the most difficult voyage.

The former Soviet Union began construction 26 years ago in 1985 at a shipyard on the Black Sea. The vessel, with a displacement of around 60,000 tons, was designed to be among the largest carriers in the world at that time.

However, after the Soviet Union collapsed in November 1991, construction halted when the warship was 70-percent complete.

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