Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Aircraft carrier plan shows China naval ambitions

The new generation of combat aircraft China proudly showed off at the Zhuhai Air Show in the country's south this week could soon be taking off from a prestigious runway: an aircraft carrier.

Beijing has become increasingly assertive in its ambitions on the high seas -- as demonstrated by recent tensions with old rival Japan -- but still lacks this naval centrepiece.

This looks set to change.

Although it has not officially announced as much, China is working on a carrier and Western experts believe it could be launched as early as next year, though not in a fully operational state. Related article: A former Soviet carrier's China odyssey

It is a former Soviet aircraft carrier called the Varyag, currently being refurbished in the port city of Dalian in northeast China.

Rick Fisher, a Chinese military expert at the International Assessment and Strategy Centre in the United States, told AFP the Pentagon estimates China's carrier will start operations by 2015.

"This is a reasonable projection. China could have enough of the carrier air wing flying by that time to start developing carrier operating procedures and fighting tactics," he said.

Fisher said that Chinese leaks to media in Hong Kong and Japan last year indicated that Beijing plans a five-strong carrier fleet, including two nuclear-powered vessels.

Arthur Ding, an expert on the People's Liberation Army, which operates the country's navy, said owning an aircraft carrier is a prestige issue for China, whose 2.3 million-strong military is already the world's largest.

This is particularly so when neighbours -- and rivals -- including Japan and India are already equipped with them, said Ding, of National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

But there is a second, practical reason, he added.

"As China's interests expand globally, the Chinese navy needs to go further outbound, and an aircraft carrier is needed," he said.

China has a nuclear arsenal and the world's second-largest defence budget after the United States -- although experts believe China spends more than it reveals -- but its military capabilities beyond its borders are limited.


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