Into uncharted waters
Owning an aircraft carrier has been the aspiration for generations of Chinese, especially within the People's Liberation Army.
Even in the days of China's late paramount leader Mao Zedong - when China's modern shipbuilding industry was basically nonexistent - Chinese leaders had decided that the nation needed a true deep-water navy with aircraft carriers at its nucleus. The need was felt particularly following a clash with Vietnam in 1974 over the sovereignty of the Xisha , or Paracel, islands in the South China Sea.
Aspirations were temporarily set aside when Deng Xiaoping launched his revolutionary economic reforms in 1978. Resources were diverted away from the military as economic development took priority. The PLA turned its focus to deterrence and coastal defence and spent its energy on less expensive goals, such as developing a submarine fleet. But the dream lived on. For many PLA leaders, building an aircraft carrier has been a holy grail.
The founder of the PLA's modern navy and its chief from 1982 to 1989, Admiral Liu Huaqing, lobbied top leaders hardest to spare more resources to upgrade the fleet.
Liu was the first to propose to the PLA's top Central Military Commission that it build the country's first carrier in the 1980s, helping earn his nickname as 'the father of the aircraft carrier.' He died in January, aged 95.
The PLA's top-secret carrier project was shelved for a time due to a lack of funds, although rumours of its perseverance continued to surface, especially after the navy put four modern destroyers into service in 2000. Finally, in June, PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde, confirmed to a Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong that the PLA was indeed building one.
Revelations followed that the carrier would not, in fact, be a new vessel at all, but a stern-to-bow overhaul of an unfinished Soviet ship. The 300-metre Varyag, was bought from Ukraine in 1998 for US$20 million through a shadowy Macau-based company, Chong Lot Travel Agency, under the pretense it would be a floating casino.
Many expected her launch on August 1 - the anniversary of the PLA's founding. However, the maiden voyage was delayed after typhoon Muifa made landfall not far from the ship's berth in Dalian. She finally set sail yesterday.
In every way, the trip represents a humble beginning to the PLA's aircraft carrier ambitions. The Ministry of National Defence stressed the ship's Soviet-era design and insisted the vessel was intended mainly for 'scientific research and training.'
The carrier, for instance, is propelled not by nuclear reactors like US carriers, but less-advanced steam turbines. The Chinese vessel also uses a ski-jump flight deck instead of the catapult-assisted take-off system used by US ships, noted Terence Yeung, a military expert who teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University.
'As a result, the variety of aircraft onboard the carrier would be limited,' Yeung said.
That also means that development of China's ship-borne fighter jet, the J-15 - said to be derived from Russian's Su-33 - could prove vital to establishing strike power for any potential carrier battle group.
The J-15 made its maiden test flight in August 2009 and may not be ready for carrier-based testing until 2013, said Anthony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau.
However, Wong listed other PLA aircraft that would be available for service on the carrier, including helicopters like the Z-8, Z-9 and the Russian-made Ka-31.
'The lower-grade JL-9 trainer is most likely the only available choice for the PLA to train it pilots for landing and taking off from the carrier until the J-15s are in place,' Wong said.
The name of the new vessel is still a closely guarded secret. But Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA major general, who now works for the state-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the PLA navy traditionally gave warships geographical names, whereas training vessels normally took human names.
One popular theory is that the ship would be carry the name of a historic figure.
Apart from the front-running Huaqing, Wong said 'Sa Zhenbing ' was another popular choice within the navy. Not only was Sa (1859-1952) the son of a highly-respected national hero and warship captain who died in the first Sino-Japanese war, he was himself a well-known admiral who served in both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. If such names were chosen, Wong said it would be a clue the carrier was intended largely for training.
Yeung said one of the ship's most important functions would be as a stepping stone for the navy's ambitious development of a global or 'blue-water' fleet.
'You will never become powerful in a real sense if you keep buying advanced weapons from others without contributing your own commitment and innovative development,' he said. 'You must learn your own lessons before you can grasp the military technology properly.'
Wong speculated the carrier would formally join the fleet on October 1, 2012 - the 61st anniversary of the People's Republic of China - following a year's testing.
'Carrier strike group operations will be of crucial significance for the navy,' he said.
Once the PLA is ready to become a member of the carrier club, comparisons between the navies of China and the US may become inevitable.
But Wong said it would be wrong to think the PLA's carrier could compete with the US. 'The gap between the two forces, particularly in terms of the development of aircraft carriers, is too wide to be closed within a decade or two,' he said.
Indeed, the PLA will have to span oceans of maritime development before commanding a full-fledged carrier group ready for deployment. The US Navy - the world's largest seaborne military force - has 11 naval strike groups, with frigates, destroyers, cruisers, submarines and a carrier at their cores. That includes its Seventh Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan, with additional units in Guam.
'In comparison with the US on the basis of carrier technology, China is at primary school stage, whereas the US is a postgraduate student,' Yeung said. 'In that sense, the US need not worry at all.'
Still, securing the sea lanes between Chinese ports and the Indian Ocean have only grown in importance with China's emergence this year as the world's second-largest economy behind the US. Such routes are lifelines that carry the crude oil, minerals and exports vital to the mainland's development. Having a carrier battle group and more stronger navy in production would make the PLA more confident of handling maritime troubles, Wong said. 'That is, after all, Beijing's key consideration in securing a carrier strike group.'
The number of aircraft carriers outspoken Gen. Luo Yuan recently said China would need to keep pace with Japan and India