China’s first aircraft carrier, Varyag — a remodeled Soviet-era vessel — will go on sea trials next week, a report said Tuesday, amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
China’s top military official reportedly confirmed earlier this month that Beijing is building a huge aircraft carrier, the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence from China’s secretive defence program.
The Hong Kong Commercial Daily, which broke the story of the vessel’s confirmation, quoted unnamed military sources saying the carrier will go on sea trials on July 1 but will not be officially launched until October 2012.
The sources said the test has been expedited in view of rising tensions in the South China Sea — home to two potentially oil-rich archipelagos, the Paracels and Spratlys — in recent weeks.
China’s military “hopes it will show the strength of the Chinese maritime forces to deter other nations which are eying the South China Sea in order to calm tensions,” the sources said.
They added that the sea trial date was also picked to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, but noted that factors such as weather could affect the planned test run.
China’s military did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.
Tensions between Beijing and other rival claimants to the strategically vital South China Sea have heightened recently.
China has claimed mineral rights around the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and argued that foreign navies cannot sail through the area without Beijing’s permission.
In September, Japan and China also clashed over the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, located in the East China Sea.
But Chinese officials have previously said that its first aircraft carrier would not pose a threat to other nations, in accordance with Beijing’s defensive military strategy.
The Chinese aircraft carrier plan was confirmed when the chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Chen Bingde, confirmed the ship’s existence in an interview with the Hong Kong paper.
He said the 300 metre (990-foot) former Soviet carrier, originally called the Varyag, was being overhauled. The ship is currently based in the northeast port of Dalian.
An expert on China’s military has reportedly said the carrier would be used for training and as a model for a future indigenous-built ship.
The Varyag was originally built for the Soviet navy but construction was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The PLA — the largest army in the world — is hugely secretive about its defence programs, which benefit from a large military budget boosted by the nation’s runaway economic growth.