Beijing Confirms First Aircraft Carrier

China confirmed Wednesday the rehabilitating of an aircraft carrier purchased from Ukraine, according to sources close to the government, the country has begun the construction of two other aircraft carriers.

Beijing is engaged in modernization of its armed forces, and President Hu Jintao has made the navy a priority for military development.

More capable maritime power projection could change the strategic balance in the region.

“Two aircraft carriers are being built in Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai,” said a source close to the leadership of the Communist Party of China, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Defense Ministry has officially confirmed the existence of an aircraft carrier, bought in 1998 from Ukraine by a Chinese company which intended to convert it to a floating casino in Macao.

Former Varyag, a 300-meter-long aircraft carrier of Soviet design, was taken over later by the Chinese army. Its restoration in the port of Dalian, was one of the deepest military secrets kept from the world: photographs of current work have been circulating for months on Chinese websites, and the national media have extensively covered the subject. The statement from news agency Xinhua is the first official confirmation of the restoring work.

The aircraft carrier will be used for training and research missions, said a spokesman for the army, Geng Yansheng, while reaffirming the right of China to defend its territorial sea and its coasts.

“This is the sacred responsibility of the Chinese armed forces,” he said in a statement.

The spokesman of the Ministry does not specify a timetable for its return to service, but says that pilots are already in naval aviation training.

China will be the third Asian country after India and Thailand, to be equipped with an aircraft carrier. A strategic chip in an area of the world where the Navy of the United States is dominant since the end of World War II.

Sources close to the Communist Party and military state that the first Chinese aircraft carrier will be based in the southern province of Hainan, along maritime trade routes in the sensitive South China Sea.

This development is not trivial at a time when China gets territorial disputes with several neighboring countries, including Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

But the Ministry of Defence ensures that the project “has nothing to do” with this issue.

“China will be able to project power far beyond its shores,” says Alexander Huang, who teaches strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.” This will have significant implications for security forces operating in the Western Pacific, including the United States, Japan and Australia: so we are speaking about great change.”

Tim Huxley, who heads the defense analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, however, says it will take time before China is endowed with a true maritime force projection. “It will take time to train crews, perhaps within ten years China will not have this capability,” he said.