China's carrier set for commissioning

March 23, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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BEIJING, March 23 (UPI) -- China will commission its first aircraft carrier into active although limited service Aug. 1.

The Chinese navy will take over the 55,000-ton vessel, purchased as an unfinished project from Ukraine in 1998 and deploy it in the increasingly political arena of the South China Sea, the Shanghai Daily newspaper reported.

China's People's Liberation Army Deputy Navy Commander Xu Hongmeng confirmed the commissioning and other tests to the newspaper.

China bought the hull of the unfinished vessel in 1998, with no guns and engines, from a Ukrainian shipyard where it had been under construction. It was left unfinished after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leaving Ukraine with Soviet bases and equipment.

The vessel remains officially unnamed in China but is referred to by its old name -- Varyag -- when mentioned in reports.

The vessel, an Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier, measures around 1,000 feet in length and 122 feet wide at the water line.

The August commissioning will move China into the small group of nations that have aircraft carriers.

"Currently, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Spain, Italy, India, Brazil and Thailand, operate a total of 21 active-service aircraft carriers," Xinhua said.

Chinese officials have gone out of their way to stress since August that the vessel isn't aimed at offensive military operations. It is to be used for training naval staff and pilots, as well as scientific work, China's state-run news agency Xinhua said in December.

The Naval-Technology Web site also said the Chinese navy will begin flying its domestically built J-15 fighter -- still under development -- from the carrier.

"Trial runs for the Shenyang J-15, a carrier-based fighter aircraft that will operate from the Varyag are also in the pipeline," Xu said. "China will need at least three aircraft carriers."

The J-15, called The Shark, is believed to be a modified version of a Russian Su-33 prototype, also purchased from the Ukraine, Global Security Web site reports.

The J-15 is designed to fly from so-called ski-jump carriers, like Varyag, rather than carriers designed to launch aircraft using a catapult.

The combination of aircraft carrier, albeit small compared to many others, and the new aircraft has China's neighbors concerned about Beijing becoming more aggressive over disputed island territories in the South China Sea.

Many of the territories lie closer to other countries than mainland China.

The Spratly Islands -- the largest group -- lie off the southwest coast of the Philippines as well as Brunei and Malaysia. Ownership of the Spratly Islands is the most difficult of all the territorial claims because of the number of claimants, including Vietnam and Taiwan.

Further north, off the west coast of the Philippines, lies the Scarborough Shoal, disputed between China and the Philippines.

Vietnam and China also are fighting for sovereignty over the Paracels, a group of islands south of China's Hainan Island province and off the east coast of Vietnam.

China's maritime activities are "overbearing" and arouse "anxiety about its future direction," Japan's annual Defense Ministry white paper stated.

The document, released in August and called "Defense of Japan, 2011" describes China's rapid modernization of its military hardware as an attempt to "strengthen its capacity to have its military potential reflected in distant locations."

Beijing's buildup of its maritime power and its defense policy in general, which was noted in last year's white paper, continues to be "a concern for the regional and the international community," a report by Yomiuri Shimbun said.

China should "be aware of its responsibility as a major power and abide by international rules," the Yomiuri Shimbun report said.

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