China’s first aircraft carrier, the reconditioned Soviet-era Varyag, will begin sea trials on Friday, according to military sources, and will be officially launched around October next year.
The Hong Kong Commercial Daily quoted unnamed military sources as saying the carrier would commence sea trials on July 1, which is much sooner than expected. The US Office of Naval Intelligence had estimated the vessel would be launched as a training platform by 2012 and be fully operational after 2015.
The sources said the project was being speeded up due to rising tensions in the South China Sea, particularly over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.
China’s military “hopes it will show the strength of the Chinese maritime forces to deter other nations, which are eyeing the South China Sea, in order to calm tensions,” the sources said, adding that the sea trial date was also picked to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Varyag, which a Chinese firm bought from the Ukraine in 1998 for US$20 million, is currently being refurbished by the Chinese navy in the port city of Dalian in northeast China. It will most likely pave the way for completely indigenously built aircraft carriers.
China would be the third Asian country to have a carrier after India and Thailand, something which has caused unease in the region.
At the beginning of this month, China’s defence minister sought to reassure Asia Pacific neighbours that his country’s growing economic and military power was not a threat.
General Liang Guanglie told the annual Shangri-La security conference in Singapore that the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army was in line with the country’s economic growth and to meet its security requirements.
“We do not intend to threaten any country with the modernization of our military force. I know many people tend to believe that with the wealth of China’s economy, China will be a military threat,” he said, speaking dressed in full military uniform.
“I would like to say that it is not our option. We didn’t seek to, we are not seeking to and we will not seek hegemony and we will not threaten any country.”
China will beef up its military budget by 12.7 percent this year, the government announced in March, a return to double-digit spending increases that stirred unease in the region as well as in the United States which has long had a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
China’s growing military influence has coincided with a more assertive diplomatic tone, evident in rows with Japan and Southeast Asia over disputed islands, and in rows with Washington over trade, the yuan currency and this week over cyber-security after Google said email accounts had been hacked in an attack that appeared to originate from China.
But Liang said the situation in the South China Sea where a territorial dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines heated up last month was now stable.
“China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said adding it stood by a 2002 code of conduct signed with members of the Association of South East Asian Nations to resolve peacefully the rival claims over the resource-rich region.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines have complained about Chinese activity and even harassment in the contested South China Sea over the past week or so.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim territories in the sea, which covers an important shipping route and is thought to hold untapped oil and gas reserves.
China’s claim is by far the largest, forming a vast U-shape over most of the sea’s 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
Tension also increased with Vietnam last month after Hanoi said a Vietnamese oil and gas exploration ship had its surveying cables cut by Chinese boats.
The modernization of China’s navy in particular has raised concern in the region. Beijing is upgrading its destroyers and frigates to sail further and strike harder.
A recent poll conducted in China revealed overwhelming support for the aircraft carrier. The Global Times said almost 80 percent of respondents in the survey wanted China to launch a carrier, although 56.5 percent thought such a move would increase risks of an arms race in Asia or with other countries, including the United States.
Indeed, China’s carrier ambitions have alarmed its rival India, which will lease a nuclear submarine from Russia by the end of the year.
PTI reported that India would receive it’s first new generation Nerpa Akula-II class nuclear attack submarine, which is undergoing sea trials in Russia, by the end of this year, according to a top Russian official.
“The Nerpa will be handed over to the Indian Navy on [a 10 year] lease by the end of this year,” Director of Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS) Mikhail Dmitriyev was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.