70-year dream of an aircraft carrier close to reality
Minnie Chan and Julian Ryall in Tokyo
Twenty high-resolution pictures of China's first aircraft carrier, the 67,500-tonne Varyag, appeared on the Xinhua website yesterday, with captions saying the vessel was almost finished and expected to sail this year.
It was the first time official state media reported on the nation's first aircraft carrier project as well as indicating its construction progress at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning.
The Xinhua report came as Japan's National Institute for Defence Studies released its annual strategic review, which said the influence of Chinese generals on military policy was declining.
It said while there had been a marked upswing in Beijing's assertiveness in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, that, too, had been toned down in recent months.
The Xinhua picture captions said refitting work on the Varyag, a Soviet-designed Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998, was almost complete after more than a decade spent on reconstruction.
'A 70-year dream of an aircraft carrier that is all-Chinese will come true soon,' one caption said, referring to a carrier proposal by the Kuomintang navy in the 1940s.
Citing the latest report of Canadian-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, the captions confirmed the carrier would start sea trials this year after an active phased array radar system was installed on the vessel.
Andrei Chang, Kanwa's editor-in-chief, who has monitored China's carrier project for 20 years, said all the Xinhua photos of the vessel were the most recent he knew of.
'The pictures I used in the latest report of my magazine were shot in late February by our own photographer for an edition whose printing is not yet finished,' he said, adding that the Xinhua photos clearly showed a month's progress since then.
'But those pictures carried by Xinhua all come from other mainland military websites, which might be taken by so-called mainland military enthusiasts.'
It was at least the second time official media had quoted a source from the internet posted by military enthusiasts and overseas media to reconfirm Beijing's new weapon plans.
The first test flight of a new generation J-20 stealth fighter jet in January was another well-known example.
Chang estimated the carrier would undergo sea tests - including power system trials, harbour trials, close-range and high-sea trials - for about two years.
'After the sea trials are finished, it will also need at least eight years to test its radar and weapons systems such as the J-15, early warning planes and others on board,' he said.
But China would have its first formal carrier fighting group in 10 years, after all the trials and tests were completed, he said.
'Since Varyag is a carrier for training purposes, it's possible that it will be equipped with magnetic or steam catapults instead of its originally designed ski-jump ramp take-off system,' Chang said.
China's plan to develop its first aircraft carrier has been such an open secret that its seventh military white paper, issued last month, and an accompanying news conference both did not bother to mention it.
However, in December the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) revealed that Beijing put forward a plan for building aircraft carriers in its annual China Ocean Development Report in 2009.It said the State Council decided to make China a maritime superpower in 2003.
In late 2008, Beijing hinted for the first time that it was aiming to develop an aircraft carrier.
In November that year, PLA Major General Qian Lihua, director of the foreign affairs office of the Defence Ministry, told foreign media the world should not be surprised if China built an aircraft carrier.
In March 2009, Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie told his Japanese counterpart that China would not remain the only major power without an aircraft carrier forever. But the SOA report was the first official confirmation of China's carrier plans.
China decided in 2003 to become a maritime superpower
Beijing hinted it was aiming to develop an aircraft carrier in: 2008