PLA aircraft carrier gets hull number, suggesting it's ready for action
Workers seen painting '16' on the hull, indicating former Soviet vessel is almost ready for action
In a further sign that China's first aircraft carrier could become operational this year, the still unnamed vessel's hull number - 16 - has been revealed, suggesting that testing is basically complete after 10 sea trials, mainland media reported.
The Legal Evening News reported yesterday that military enthusiasts near the Dalian shipyard in Liaoning said they had seen workmen painting the hull number on Sunday. The paper also published a picture showing workmen doing paint jobs from a barge next to the carrier's bow.
Senior Colonel Li Jie , a researcher with the navy's military academy in Beijing, said last month that the former Soviet vessel may formally join the Chinese navy on October 1, the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.
Li said the carrier could play a key role in defending China's sovereignty claims in maritime territorial disputes, such as parts of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
Citing an unnamed source, the Legal Evening News said that according to People's Liberation Army Navy practice, painting a hull number often suggested a vessel had completed its testing.
Defence Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said last week the testing of the carrier had been on schedule.
But Geng refused to confirm the exact timing of delivery, nor the name of the carrier.
The report said that while most PLA Navy ships had three-digit hull numbers, there were two training ships that carried two-digit numbers - No 81 Zhenghe and No 82 Shichang.
Antony Wong Dong, a Macau-based PLA watcher, said the carrier's numbering suggested the navy may go with a new naming system for its carriers.
"The vessel could possibly be named 'Hubei 16', as the central province is ranked 16th (in terms of geographic size) among the provinces, municipalities and regions on the mainland, Wong said.
"Also, Hubei is the hometown of late Admiral Liu Huaqing, former vice-chairman of the PLA's decision-making Central Military Commission.
"Such a name could show respect to Liu, as he is well-known for his devotion to the building of China's first aircraft carrier years ago."
Wong said the carrier would largely be used for training because it was not tailor-made for the PLA navy.
Wong criticised the lack of transparency in the naming system, saying: "You can't blame others taking precautions against the rise of the PLA when you keep everything in the dark."