Thursday, January 1, 2009

China to start construction of 1st aircraft carriers next year

BEIJING--China will begin construction of the country's first domestically produced aircraft carriers in Shanghai next year, with an eye to completing two mid-sized carriers by 2015, military and shipbuilding sources said.

Beijing is also expected to complete work on a never-finished former Soviet aircraft carrier moored in the northeastern port of Dalian, to provide training for carrier-based pilots and crew.

The two 50,000- to 60,000-ton carriers will rely on conventional propulsion systems, not nuclear power. They will be assigned to the People's Liberation Army Navy south sea fleet, tasked with patrolling the South China Sea, sources said.

China's carrier ambitions and the build-up of its blue-water fleet have long been of interest to Pacific nations.

National defense ministry spokesman Huang Xueping recently commented that China might build its own aircraft carriers.

However, this is the first time the goals of Chinese naval planners have been clarified in such detail.

If China does bolster its naval combat capabilities by deploying aircraft carriers, it could significantly impact the delicate military balance in East Asia.

According to sources close to Shanghai municipal authorities, one of the world's largest shipbuilding facilities was completed this fall on Changxingdao island at the mouth of the Changjiang river near Shanghai.

One of the four docks there is for construction of the aircraft carriers, they said.

Shipbuilding sources said there are plans to import electrical control parts from Russia and that orders have already been placed with domestic military suppliers.

If procurement goes as planned, the carriers could be completed about two years earlier than planned.

Meanwhile, shipbuilders in Dalian are nearing completion of the 60,000-ton former Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier Varyag, as a training ship for carrier-borne aircraft pilots and crew. The ship, which was about 70 percent complete at the time of its purchase, was first acquired by a Macao tourism firm in 1998. Since 2002, it has been under construction by a Dalian-based shipbuilder with ties to the navy.

A ranking Chinese navy officer told The Asahi Shimbun that as China increasingly relies on Mideast oil, the aircraft carriers would likely see duty guarding sea lanes in the Malacca Strait and in the Indian Ocean. The officer contended that because the ships will be smaller than U.S. carriers they will not pose a threat.

Ikuo Kayahara, a professor of security studies at Takushoku University and a former research department director at the National Institute for Defense Studies, said China's plan to build aircraft carriers is a "key pillar to enhancing its naval capabilities."

"China hopes to broaden its buffer zone to protect its coasts from a perceived threat from the United States," Kayahara said.(IHT/Asahi: December 31,2008)

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