China’s first aircraft carrier has held its first sea trial, in a step likely to stoke patriotic pride at home and jitters abroad about Beijing’s naval ambitions.
The long-awaited debut of the carrier, refitted from a former Soviet craft, marked an initial step towards China’s plans to build a carrier force that can project power into the Asian region, where seas are spanned by busy shipping lanes and thorny territorial disputes.
The carrier “left its shipyard in Dalian Port in northeast Liaoning province on Wednesday morning to start its first sea trial,” said Xinhua, describing the trip as only a tentative trial run for the unfinished ship.
“Military sources said that the first sea trial was in line with the schedule of the carrier refitting project and would not take a long time,” said the report.
The aircraft carrier, which is about 300 metres long, ploughed through fog and sounded its horn three times as it left the dock, Xinhua said on its military news microblog.
In an interview published this week, Chinese navy rear admiral Yin Zhuo said his country intended to build an air carrier group, but that task would be long and difficult.
“The aircraft carriers will form a very strong battle group,” Yin told the China Economic Weekly. “But the construction and functional demands of an aircraft carrier are extremely complex,” he told the magazine.
Training crew and, eventually, pilots for carriers was a big challenge, said Yin.
“An aircraft carrier requires the concerted action of a team of thousands. That’s far from easy,” he said.
Last month, China’s defence ministry China confirmed the government was refitting the old, unfinished Soviet vessel bought from the Ukraine government, and sources told Reuters it was also building two of its own carriers.
Earlier, a Pentagon spokesman downplayed the likelihood of any immediate leaps from China’s nascent carrier program.
But the carrier plan is just one part of China’s naval modernisation programme, which has forged ahead while other powers tighten their military budgets to cope with debt woes.
The growing Chinese naval reach is triggering regional jitters that have fed into longstanding territorial disputes, and could speed up military expansion across Asia.
In the past year, China has had run-ins at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The incidents — boat crashes and charges of territorial incursions – have been minor, but the diplomatic reaction often heated.
Last week, Japan warned that China’s naval forces were likely to increase activities around its waters, prompting Beijing to accuse Tokyo of deliberately exaggerating the Chinese military threat.
China’s defence budget has shot up nearly 70 per cent over five years, while Japan – tied by a public debt twice the size of its US$5 trillion economy – has cut military outlays by 3 per cent over the same period, a Japanese government report said.
A senior US Navy intelligence officer earlier this year said he believed China wanted to start fielding multiple aircraft carriers over the next decade, with the goal of becoming a global naval power capable of projecting power around the world by mid-century.
The US navy official said it would take years for China’s navy to learn how to integrate flight deck operations and attain the sophistication needed to use them effectively.