First aircraft carrier could be in use by National Day

China's first aircraft carrier could be officially operational by National Day (October 1), says a senior naval researcher.

The vessel has yet to be given a Chinese name. It was built using the hull of an unfinished Soviet carrier, the Varyag, which Beijing acquired in 2002.

Senior Colonel Li Jie , a researcher with the navy's military academy in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post that the Varyag, which completed its ninth sea trial on July 30, may formally join the Chinese navy on the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

'The Varyag will serve our navy sometime this year, and it may be put into operation on October 1, as almost all of the necessary equipment on board has been installed,' Li said.

Beijing has said that the carrier will be used for training purposes.

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.

'In the South China Sea, we would still prefer not to use military means to resolve territorial disputes with our neighbours ... but of course the Varyag has certain fighting capabilities, even though it was designed to be a training carrier,' Li said.

'It will not just stay in one naval base. It could target several places because of its good maneuverability and sustainability, as China is now an ocean power with more than 7,000 islands and 14,000 kilometres of island coastline to look after.'

He said the carrier would likely operate in offshore zones and eventually be sent to the high seas to safeguard China's interests abroad. 'In the near future, we need at least three aircraft carriers, including the Varyag, to defend our maritime rights,' Li said.

In speculating that the carrier would be launched this year, Li pointed to similar comments made in March by Admiral Wu Shengli , commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy. But Li did not specify the location or context that Wu spoke of.

In April 2009, military insiders told the Post that Beijing expected to launch the nation's first aircraft carrier this year, and that a full battle group, including supply ships, would be operational in 2015.

About a year later, then United States Admiral Robert Willard, who was the head of US Pacific Command in Hawaii, told Congress that the Soviet-era carrier would be 'operational around 2012 and likely be used to develop basic carrier skills'.

A Macau businessman bought the Varyag from a Ukrainian shipyard in 1998.

Beijing acquired the vessel in March 2002 and started a comprehensive refitting in April 2005 in Dalian , Liaoning province, where the vessel remains based.