The experts had visited the No. 3 military dock of the Changxing Island Shipyard -- the new location of the Jiangnan Shipyard, known as the cradle of China's defense industry -- based in Shanghai, where they acquired exclusive photos of the interior of the shipyard. From these it can be deduced that China is ready to commence building the aircraft carrier at this dock.
Chinese armed police have dramatically strengthened their watch on Dock No. 3. All the entrances to and exits from this dock are under armed police guard, with plainclothes police on patrol. In contrast, the entrances to Dock No. 1, where civilian ships are built, are guarded only by shipyard security staff.
Dock No. 3 is 580 meters long, 120 meters wide, and completely encircled by a wall at least 2.5 meters high. A giant gantry crane has been built, with a capacity to lift at least 600 tons. The dock is large enough to build a medium-sized conventional aircraft carrier similar to the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov class with a light load displacement of about 50,000 tons.
The outfitting quay for No. 3 Dock has been finished and includes a large gantry crane. According to the Eastern European sailors who visited the shipyard, the quay is 8 kilometers long and was finished in the fall of 2008.
A number of large containers have been shipped to the area near the dock. Among senior shipbuilding experts from Germany, France and Italy who examined the shipyard photos, one suggested the containers might be loaded with oxygen supplies and power-generating equipment, as huge amounts of oxygen and power would be required for welding engineering.
An Eastern European source familiar with the aircraft carrier project told United Press International that China had invested $5.1 billion in the facilities at Changxing Island, including three gigantic joint-structured indoor assembly workshops in which the separate sections of the carrier would be built.
The expert from the French shipbuilding industry said these facilities could be used for processing steel plates and section materials, or the preliminary treatment or assembly of separate sections of the carrier.
Sources have informed United Press International that the shipyard and all its facilities were built at a very fast pace. A separate road network was finished around January 2007 to provide safety and security for the project. Despite attempts at secrecy, many residents of the nearby Changxing township knew that the shipyard was being readied to make China's first aircraft carrier.
The facilities include numerous five-story buildings -- accommodations for nearly 60,000 peasant laborers hired to build the aircraft carrier facilities -- that have been in use since early this year. A correspondent for Kanwa Defense Review visited the area to interview peasant workers recruited for this project. The workers said they were paid from $440 to $585 per month, which is three or four times what an ordinary laborer in Shanghai can earn, and that their living conditions were very good.
The round-shaped headquarters building was to be finished this spring. Free-standing residential buildings in red and gray have been constructed for the shipbuilding experts. Satellite photos show that these houses are quite luxurious.
Judging from the size of the three gigantic joint-structured indoor assembly workshops affiliated to Dock No. 3, it is fully possible that the separate modules of the ship will be built in these workshops and finally assembled at the dock.
Sources told United Press International that China intends to build, equip and launch its first aircraft carrier -- internally named "Beijing" -- between 2009 and 2015. It is possible that the process could take longer, however.
The first steps will include the processing and cutting of steel plates and section materials as well as the assembly of sectional parts. When the keel is laid down it will be difficult to keep it secret, as the keel of the aircraft carrier must be towed to the dock in one piece.
June 3 was the Jiangnan Shipyard's 144th anniversary.
(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)