Friday, August 12, 2011

China's aircraft carrier begins sea trials

BEIJING: China's first aircraft carrier on Wednesday set sail for sea trials, officials said, as concerns mounted about the country's rapid military buildup amid flaring regional disputes.

The refitted former Ukrainian carrier platform left its shipyard at Dalian Port in northeast China's Liaoning Province this morning to set sail for its maiden sea trial, Xinhua news agency reported.

The agency said that the sea trials were in line with the country's programme to rebuild the carrier. Beijing has spent almost 10 years retrofitting the Ukrainian carrier Varvag.

Refitting work will continue after the vessel returns to the port, Xinhua said without specifying the duration of the sea trials.

The carrier was originally built by the former Soviet Union, which failed to complete the ship's construction before collapsing in 1991.

The still-unnamed aircraft carrier was bought from Ukraine, which disarmed it and removed its engines before selling it to China.

As it set sail, the Liaoning Provincial Maritime Safety Administration publicised a notice restricting navigation in waters off the Dalian coast, saying that vessels are forbidden from travelling through an area of sea 13. 25 nautical miles wide and 22 nautical miles long in the northern Yellow Sea and Liaodong Bay from August 10 to 14.

Military enthusiasts and tourists flocked to Dalian to view the carrier before it set sail.

The carrier is being launched amid escalating disputes between China and several ASEAN countries over islands in South China Sea.

Defending the carrier Chinese officials have pointed to India, US and several other countries already having the aircraft carriers.

Currently, China is the only nation among five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that does not have an active-service aircraft carrier, they say.

"US operates 11 carrier battle groups and has deployed six of them in the Pacific region," Real Admiral Yin Zhuo, director of the Expert Consultation Committee of People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy said.

China's neighbours such as India and Russia also have carriers and continue developing their weapon systems, while Japan and South Korea have acquired large-tonnage warships which could be used as aircraft carriers, Yin told official media.

Li Jie, a researcher with the PLA Navy's Academic Research Institute said India was the first country in Asia to have a carrier acquiring first Vikrant and later Viraat, both refitted old British war ships.

India placed an order to buy the Russian decommissioned Admiral Gorshkov besides starting to building its indigenous carrier scheduled to come into service in 2014, Li said.

Military officials said that the Chinese carrier serves mainly as a platform for research, experiment and training, while plans were afoot to build more indigenous ones in future besides equipping them with modern weapons and aircraft, which China currently lack.

Military analysts say that the carrier will add a new dimension to Chinese burgeoning navy, which could provide a major challenge to India in its backyard, the Indian Ocean, where Indian navy has a dominant presence.

Some analysts believe that the new acquisition could also make China to look for US style naval bases abroad as its sphere of influence grows.

An official commentary in Xinhua said aircraft carriers will not change the Chinese navy's strategic deployment, nor the country's defensive national defence policy and thus should not be viewed as a threat.

The Chinese navy so far made up of three separate fleets, the Beihai Fleet, the Donghai Fleet and the Nanhai Fleet.

Each fleet has its own support bases, flotillas, maritime garrison commands, aviation divisions and marine brigades.

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