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August 30, 2011

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It's full speed ahead for China's blue-water ambitions

THE successful sea trials of China's first aircraft carrier opens a new chapter of maritime history, and Yang Jian reports that the nation's dream of carrier-capability dates back over 40 years and has been anything but plain sailing.

China's first aircraft carrier has steamed onto the world's blue-water stage for sea trials as the rest of the world watched and Chinese cheered that their nation has entered a higher military tier after more than a decade of effort.

With the maiden voyage of the refitted 300-meter-long Varyag (to be officially christened later with a Chinese name), which was purchased unfinished from Ukraine, China becomes the last of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the 10th nation to deploy an aircraft carrier. The United States has 11; Russia and India each have one; Italy has two; the other countries have one.

The successful sea trials began on August 11, and the carrier is now undergoing further refitting in Dalian, its home port in northeastern China's Liaoning Province. It will be used primarily as a training platform and for scientific research and experiments.

Acquiring an aircraft carrier has been a long and complicated process that started more than 40 years ago and involved many setbacks.

China's former Naval Commander Admiral Liu Huaqing, known as the "Father of China's Aircraft Carrier" because of his great support for the program, said in his memoir that "China launched its initial plan for a carrier as early as 1970."

The initial efforts were mainly importing decommissioned vessels from other countries. Actually, the Varyag, a half-built Soviet-era warship, is just one member of China's four-member family of aircraft carriers. And it's the only one in service.

Since the 1980s, China has imported three carriers, including two decommissioned, from the former Soviet Union and one from Australia.

Two decommissioned Russian vessels were imported and converted into theme parks in 1998, the Kiev in Tianjin Municipality in the north and the Minsk in Shenzhen in southern Guangdong Province.

In its first carrier import, China bought the retired Melbourne from the Australian Navy in 1985, but found the old carrier without armaments was nothing more than a pile of scrap metal, so it was dismantled in a shipyard in Guangzhou and the iron was recycled.

In 1998 China bought its second aircraft carrier, the Varyag, now the first commissioned aircraft carrier.

China's aircraft carrier mission is ongoing.

Last December, a UK-based Chinese businessman Lam Kin-bong bid 5 million pounds (US$8 million) for a junk light aircraft carrier, the HMS Invincible, and planned to convert it into a floating school, but the bid was rejected by the UK Ministry of Defence.

Recently, a Hong Kong-based company bid for another retired British aircraft carrier and if the bid is accepted, the firm plans to convert it into a luxury goods exhibition center.

The biggest shareholder in the bidding company is Huang Guangyu, China's home appliance tycoon, who is now imprisoned on corruption charges.

Businessman Lam also submitted a bid on this carrier and the result is yet to be announced.

"China has been closely studying the experiences of other countries in the aircraft carrier area, so it will undoubtedly acquire adequate experience," said Pavel Kamennov, an expert at the Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Of all the imported carriers, the Varyag had the most difficult voyage.

The former Soviet Union began construction 26 years ago in 1985 at a shipyard on the Black Sea. The vessel, with a displacement of around 60,000 tons, was designed to be among the largest carriers in the world at that time.

However, after the Soviet Union collapsed in November 1991, construction halted when the warship was 70-percent complete.

The vessel was then designated for use by Ukraine, but famed Chinese military expert Du Wenlong says it was a "hot potato" at the time. It would have cost Ukraine around US$250 million to complete the carrier, a huge cost to the new republic at that time, says Du.

As a result, Ukraine decided to disarm the vessel, remove the steam turbine engines and sell it to China in April 1998. Moved along by tugboats, the powerless Varyag then began its long and arduous voyage to China.

When it reached the Bosphoros (Istanbul) Strait in 2002, it was stopped by Turkey, which feared the huge vessel would disrupt traffic in the strait, according to Yao Kuangyi, former Chinese Ambassador to Turkey.

China then rented Greece's largest tugboat and installed radar and GPS on the carrier and took other measures to ensure a safe voyage. After 16 months of negotiations, the Turkish government agreed to allow the carrier to transit the strait, Yao told People's Daily.

After it was pushed and pulled through the strait, the Varyag was stopped again at the Suez Canal because the Egyptian government barred vessels without engines for safety reasons, Yao said.

The carrier then had to change its route, going through the Mediterranean, around the Cape of Good Hope and Malacca Strait.

When it finally arrived at Dalian Port in Liaoning Province in March 2002, it had been four years since China bought the warship.

"China went to great lengths and through a lot of trouble to import the carrier because we need to learn the technologies and then work out our own experiences and techniques for future Chinese carriers," says Zhang Zhaozhong, a professor of the National Defense University of the People's Liberation Army of China.

Now, the Varyag is undergoing further refitting at the Dalian shipyard. The hull has been repainted in the standard gray used by the PLA Navy; all weapons and radar systems and other equipment were made in China.

The carrier is expected to officially be commissioned in the Chinese Navy next August. It will be capable of carrying around 30 Chinese J-15 fighters and helicopters and carry a crew of around 2,000.

In 1995, the Minsk was sold to a South Korean businessman and later resold to the Shenzhen Minsk World Park.

It became the world's first aircraft carrier park.

Since it opened to the public in May 2000, the Minsk has received more than 6 million tourists, including many senior military officials, such as Admiral Liu Huaqing.

Visitors need to pass a 10-meter-long bridge to reach the carrier.

When they get to the deck, five torpedoes are rotated and ready to fire. There's a simulation of live fire at the beginning of the visit.

"Actually, we engineers designed the show based on some movies and our own imagination," says Wang Dayong, a technical engineer at the park.

Visitors can watch two movies, including a 4D movie about a fictional military mission of the Minsk.

Kiev, once the pride of the Russian Navy, arrived in China in 2000 and was opened to the public in Tianjin Municipality in 2006. It features a live show with Hollywood technology about a fictional anti-terrorism mission.

With the first sea trial of the Varyag, an increasing number of visitors go to see the Kiev nowadays, according to staff in Tianjin.

And still China's aircraft carrier mission steams along.

The Chinese military has not commented on plans for other aircraft carriers, but the Voice of Russia quoted Pavel Kamennov with the Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences as saying early this month that China is building two more aircraft carriers in Shanghai.

Kamennov predicted China would build its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and form an aircraft carrier group by 2020.


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