China alarms its neighbours with aircraft-carrier launch
CHINA'S first aircraft-carrier embarked on its maiden sea trials yesterday, in a move that is likely to crystallise fears among the country's smaller neighbours of its rising naval power.
The 60,000-ton warship, bought as an empty shell from Ukraine in 1998, slipped its moorings in the northeastern port of Dalian, following months of anticipation from foreign observers and Chinese military enthusiasts.
China's rapid military modernisation is being watched anxiously by Washington, Tokyo and China's smaller neighbours in the South China Sea, including Vietnam and the Philippines, which have territorial disputes with Beijing.
Only last week, Japan voiced concern over China's lengthening naval reach and what it called the "opaqueness" of Beijing's military budgets, which many analysts estimate to be far bigger than the official numbers would indicate.
China only officially acknowledged the existence of the carrier two months ago, despite the fact that the ship had been visible from a branch of IKEA in Dalian for several years.
China has often dismissed foreign concerns over its military build-up as the result of what it calls "cold-war thinking" and a desire to constrain its emergence as a world power. It claims that it has always intended a "peaceful rise".
"Building a strong navy that is commensurate with China's rising status is a necessary step and an inevitable choice for the country to safeguard its increasingly globalised national interests," the official news agency Xinhua said of the carrier.
It added: "Even if China developed an aircraft carrier with full combat capacity in the future, it would not pose any threat to other countries."
Although many analysts agree that it will be mid-century before China can mount a direct challenge to the naval power of the US -- which currently has 11 carrier battle groups -- Western military sources say they expect China to use the ship as a template for another four carriers.
The current trials are the first step in a lengthy process of turning the vessel into an operational ship, said Andrei Chang, head of the Kanwa Information Centre, which monitors China's military.
"The first sea trial is just for testing different items, like whether the engines work or not," he said.
China has also built a mocked-up carrier out of steel and concrete on the roof of a government building in the central city of Wuhan.
The structure, which includes a ski-jump runway, appears to have been used for training purposes. (© Daily Telegraph, London)