China's First Aircraft Carrier Heads Out to Sea

The Chinese navy's newest flag ship has started its first round of sea trials

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China has been in the process of developing a working aircraft carrier for about ten years now. The hull of the Varyag, a Soviet carrier that launched in 1988, first landed under tow in 2001 at the port of Dalian in the country's northeast after China bought it from Ukraine on auction. It's been under construction there ever since, first ostensibly as a casino, but then out in the open as an aircraft carrier. On Wednesday, the craft set out on its first round of sea trials, steaming out of port under its own power for the first tests of its rudder, propulsion, and other basic systems. Last month Chinese media started a publicity push, running reports on how the carrier was ready for its maiden voyage, but careful to note it is not there to change China's defensive military strategy. On Wednesday, the state news service, Xinhua, finally announced it had left the dock.

There could be large-scale geopolitical implications to the launch of a Chinese aircraft carrier, but the Chinese government has insisted it has only pacific intentions for its acquisition of a symbol of such military might. (On a historical note, China's first aircraft carrier is taking to sea 89 years after the United States commissioned its first, the USS Langley.) China is the only member of the U.N. Security Council not to have one and a Pentagon spokesman today praised China for its transparency in announcing the ship's near-completion. Late last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Chinese military spokesman had recently emphasized the carrier's vintage and their intentions to use it only for research:

"Building an aircraft carrier is extremely complex and at present we are using a scrapped aircraft carrier platform to carry out refurbishment for the purposes of technological research, experiments and training," Col. Geng [Yansheng, a military spokesman] said, according to a Chinese transcript of a monthly Defense Ministry news conference published on its web site.

The fairly detailed feature report on the craft that ran on the China Daily website in late July pointed out that even Thailand has an aircraft carrier, albeit the world's smallest, which it uses on disaster relief missions. The article didn't mention the ongoing tension in the South China Sea, where China is stuck in a territory dispute with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan, but of course that's on people's minds. A Reuters story yesterday reminds us:

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. "The issue of transparency regarding China's defense policy and its military expansion itself are concerns not only for Japan but for the region and the international community," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said on Thursday.

With all this rubbing of hands over the birth of a new flagship, it's time to do some gawking. First, a few specifics from the ship's Wikipedia page: The Varyag is about 1,000 feet long, and deplaces about 55,000 tons. It's powered by four steam-driven turbines and has a top speed of 32 knots, a range of 3,850 miles, and an endurance of 45 days. Its air wing hasn't been established, but The New York Times reported on Wednesday that "as retrofitting wound up this spring, the Chinese unveiled a carrier-based jet, the J-15 Flying Shark, an updated clone of a Soviet-era Sukhoi-33 fighter." The ship cost $20 million at auction in 1998, but it's unknown how much China has spent on it since then. Also unknown: What China will christen its newest flagship. Varyag is a holdover from the Ukraine.

Here she is at the dock, thanks to Google Maps' satellite view:

Here's the curved bow, courtesy of Reuters:

And here's the superstructure, from the same agency:

Here she is under tow from the Ukraine in 2001, via Wikipedia:

And finally, the lit-up superstructure, courtesy of China Defense Blog:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.