China's first aircraft carrier sets sail after a decade of waiting

For a country with over 9,000 miles of coastline, it's kind of surprising that China is just now welcoming its first aircraft carrier into its maritime defense fleet. The new addition has some of its neighbors nervous, though China is assuring the world it comes in peace.

Though it's seen as a show of military might, the 60,000-ton warship isn't Chinese-made, and has a pretty weird history. In fact, the vessel's roots go all the way back to the Soviet Union and the 1980s, when it was know as the Kuznetsov-class Riga. After the Soviet Union collapsed in '91, ownership of the Riga was transferred over to Ukraine, and the ship was rechristened the Varyag. Its new owners looked to strip the vessel, however, and the carrier — sans engines, rudder and key systems — found itself on the auction block in 1998.

Here things get a little weird. A $20 million bid for the vessel in '98 was made by the Chong Lot Tourist and Amusement Agency, which said it intended to turn the carrier into a "multi-functional entertainment centre, with 600 room hotel, casino, discotheque, restaurants and night-clubs," and name it the "Ocean Entertainment Centre," according to a blog that follows news about the Varyag closely.

That sounds sweet indeed, but the company was believed — and quickly revealed — to be a front for China's People's Liberation Army Navy (or PLAN) when the carrier was towed to a shipyard in Dalian, China and painted a pleasant PLAN gray.

Now here we are, and the vessel formerly known as Varyag is performing its first sea tests. The Varyag may be China's first carrier, but the country has definitely displayed its interest in purchasing other carrier hulls in the past, and even building its own in the future.

The Varyag doesn't have a proper Chinese name of its own, yet, but it could be known soon as the Shi Lang, named after a Chinese military figure from the Ming-Qing Dynasty who conquered Taiwan in 1681. (If you're wondering how Taiwan feels about that, well, today the country is boasting about possessing an "aircraft carrier kill" missile. Subtle.)

What will this mean down the line? Well, it's another step for China in modernizing its military, as well as a move that's causing some of its smaller neighbors to sweat, according to Defense News:

"Vietnam and the Philippines have been facing problems with an aggressive Chinese Navy in the South China Sea, which China claims as a 'core interest.' On Aug. 3, the People's Daily, China's main Communist Party newspaper, warned the Philippines against building a shelter on the disputed Nansha Island in the Spratly Islands, calling it 'a severe strategic error.' As part of Vietnam's insurance against continued Chinese threats, the Navy is procuring Russian arms, including six Kilo-class attack submarines, two Gepard-class missile frigates and 20 more Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles... Any conflict between the navies of China and the Philippines or Vietnam would be an 'unequal contest,' said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy."

The presence of an aircraft carrier — the most versatile and powerful vessel a country can deploy these days — certainly won't ease such tensions.

On a side note, aircraft carriers are useful for more than just deploying attack craft. With China's space program well underway, one wonders if we won't see the vessel help in recovering spacecraft, a service the U.S. Navy uses its own carriers for.

Via Reuters, Telegraph U.K. and IBT

(Thanks, Sam!)

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