The Varyag, China’s first aircraft carrier, has started its sea trials and defense expert Wendell Minnick summerizes in Defense News what he has been observing from the Chinese media reports and military analysts.
Debate and mystery still surround the former Kuznetsov-class carrier. Procured by a Hong Kong travel agency in 1998 for $20 million, purportedly to serve as a casino in Macau, the Varyag has been the focus of debate among China watchers ever since it bypassed Macau for the Dalian Shipyard in northeast China in 2002.
The Chinese-language media are still arguing over whether the vessel will be christened the Shi Lang, after the Ming-Qing Dynasty naval admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681, or Liu Huaqing, the father of China’s modern Navy.
What is certain is that it will not be the last Chinese aircraft carrier. There are indicators, though anecdotal, that China is preparing to build up to three carriers at the Jiangnan Shipyard on Changxing Island in Shanghai.
Job-wanted advertisements in local newspapers have dropped hints the work is for a carrier program,[Gary Li, an intelligence analyst for U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis] said.
Li said one recent job advertisement for a heavy-lift vehicle contract said it sought “drivers to work on carrier project.” There have also been reports by residents that “blonde foreigners,” possibly Ukrainian engineers, have been seen living in a hotel near the shipyard.
Observers must be careful not “to fall into the trap of using every bit of gossip from some dockside fruit seller as fact,” he said. China’s carrier program has become a “heavy rumor mill.” With 11 aircraft carriers at its disposal, the U.S. has little to fear from China’s carrier program. Even if China had several aircraft carriers, “I don’t think it will reshape the strategic balance much in favor of China,” said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
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