Home-made carrier plan 'entering the final stages'
Andrei Chang, who edits Canada-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly and has monitored China's aircraft carrier project for 20 years, said the country's quest for a home-made ship was entering the final stages.
This follows confirmation by Chinese state media on Tuesday of the country's first carrier, the Varyag, a remodelled Soviet vessel bought at auction in 1998.
China's work on many of its new weapons projects, including the J-20 stealth fighter and the refit of the Varyag, had all gone faster than he had projected, Chang said. He added that a football pitch had given him a clue as to the ship's progress.
Xinhua confirmed that work on the Varyag, a 67,500-tonne Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier, had almost been completed after Beijing spent more than a decade on renovation. Xinhua posted 20 high-resolution pictures from other unofficial military websites.
Military experts said the carrier would undergo sea tests this year, a year earlier than US analysts had expected.
There are no details available about the refurbished vessel, including its size, final displacement and capacity. Military sources had thought it would be equipped with J-15 fighters, although it is likely a new aircraft - smaller than the KongJing 200 early warning and control aircraft - will be developed.
Chang said he had identified a soccer pitch next to a military dockyard on Shanghai's Changxing Island in recent satellite pictures. He said this was a clue that China's first aircraft carrier was getting set to sail.
'The satellite pictures reveal the presence of a football field behind a group of luxury towers housing experts in the No 3 military dockyard. I believe these experts are Ukrainian engineers who play football to relax and this explains the pitch,' Chang said.
'China's home-made aircraft carrier project has entered the countdown phase,' he said.
Chang added that Chinese engineers were not keen on the game and the pitch brought to mind events in Cuba almost 50 years ago.
'During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the US government believed that former Soviet experts had shipped missiles to Cuba after their U-2 spy planes had found a soccer pitch built on a missile base in the Communist country.'
As Cubans did not play much soccer and Russians and Ukrainians were noted football enthusiasts, the US government concluded that the pitch had been built for them.
In April 2009, the general manager of the Jiangnan Shipyard Group told Shanghai Dragon TV in an interview that the company was 'fully prepared for China's first home-made aircraft carrier' since work moved from the Huangpu River to Changxing Island a year ago.
The shipbuilding group is China's oldest. Its predecessor, Jiangnan Machine Manufacturer, was founded in 1865 during the Qing dynasty. It was renamed Jiangnan Shipbuilding Works in 1912 and became a state-owned enterprise in 1949.