The Varyag, China’s first operational aircraft carrier, yesterday returned home from maiden sea trial, having left the port of Dalian on Wednesday.
The reconditioned ex-Soviet vessel docked at 11:30 am at the docks of the Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Co Ltd, which refitted the giant ship, according to the Beijing-based Mirror Evening News.
No aircraft were seen on the flight deck and it is not clear if any flying was done during the sea trial.
China Daily reported unidentified military sources saying that the vessel is supposed to be handed over to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy around August 1 next year, which will be the People’s Liberation Army’s 85th anniversary.
The long-awaited debut of the vessel on Wednesday marked a step forward in China’s long-term plan 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.
“Its symbolic significance outweighs its practical significance,” said Ni Lexiong, an expert on Chinese maritime policy at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
“We’re already a maritime power, and so we need an appropriate force, whether that’s aircraft carriers or battleships, just like the United States or the British empire did,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Xinhua said that “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.”
Retired Chinese navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo last week told state-run television that his country intended to build an air carrier group, but the task would be long and difficult.
“As for forming a carrier group, I think that will take at least ten years,” he told a Chinese television broadcast on the carrier launch.
If Beijing is serious about having a viable carrier strike group, however, it will need three carriers, Ashley Townshend at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney told Reuters in an interview before the debut of the vessel.
China would also have to develop support ships and aircraft for any carrier group, Townshend said.
In China’s neighborhood, India and Thailand already have aircraft carriers, and Australia has ordered two multi-purpose carriers. The United States operates 11 carriers.
The carrier is just one part of China’s naval modernization drive, which has forged ahead while other powers tighten their military budgets to cope with debt woes.