When will she sail?

Naval enthusiasts, military watchers and people who just like the sight of huge ships as they set sail were disappointed when China’s first aircraft carrier failed to  leave port on July 1 as rumors suggested it would. 

The ship remained in its Dalian berth shrouded in fog and pelted by rain as the auspicious launch date, the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, passed.

Seen from an apartment building across a channel, the ship appears to be far from ready to sail. Construction equipment, cranes and shipping containers litter its deck. 

The aircraft carrier has a long history as it was bought, unfinished, from Ukraine in 1998 after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It was destined to be a floating casino in Macao before it came under the command of the Chinese navy and towed to Dalian in 2002. It’s been under construction since 2005. 

Known by its Russian name the Varyag, the warship hasn’t yet been given a Chinese name. 

China’s military has been coy about the Varyag although its construction has been an open secret as the aircraft carrier can be seen in its berth in Dalian from a number of vantage points. 

It was not until last month that Chen Bingde, chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, confirmed with a Hong Kong newspaper that the country was indeed building an aircraft carrier.

Still the rumors that the Varyag would leave port for sea trails attracted media attention and a number of curious onlookers. 

Too big to hide

Naval enthusiasts from Dalian and visitors to the city in Liaoning Province have discovered several public places to view the carrier, including a light rail line and an elevated highway.

An emergency exit on the upper level of an Ikea store about 1 kilometer from the shipyard, offers a bird’s eye view of the ship’s starboard side.  Shoppers and military fans with telescopes have used the emergency exit as a private viewing platform. 

Cai Haijun, 46, spent an hour on Sunday viewing the vessel from the Ikea vantage point. 

“I heard there would be a sea trial on July 1 so I came to see it,” said Cai who had travelled from landlocked Qinghai Province in western China.  It was his third visit to Dalian since his first encounter with the vessel in 2004.

“I was shocked when I first saw the rusty giant vessel. My name literally means sailor, maybe that’s why I’m so interested in the military development of our country.”

Military fans got excited again over the weekend with the arrival of the Chinese navy ship Xuxiake on Sunday. The transport carrier docked in front of the Varyag setting off another wave of speculation.

The Xuxiake is assumed to be able to accommodate 4,000 sailors and people believe it will be home to thousands of service personnel as they train to become the crew of the new Varyag

Jia Qinglin, chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, also arrived in Dalian Saturday on a planned visit to shipbuilding factories. Official media reports of his tour, however, didn’t mention the aircraft carrier.

Although the monster ship is too big to hide in plain sight, the military’s silence and lack of official recognition of the project, is perhaps why many local residents interviewed by the Global Times said they did not know the carrier was being built in Dalian.

Surrounded by a navy shipyard, residents of an apartment building overlooking the aircraft carrier’s port side mostly refused to talk about the giant vessel they could see outside their window.

Dalian now a naval powerhouse 

There are three aircraft carriers built by the former Soviet Union in China. The Kiev which is docked in Tianjin and the Minsk which is docked in Shenzhen have been transformed into floating military-theme parks.

Military enthusiasts are excited that the Varyag has been spared the indignity of becoming a museum. 

The construction contract also represents a coming of age for Dalian, and recognition of the city’s shipbuilding prowess. 

Military history buffs say there is another, perhaps more meaningful reason to have China’s first aircraft carrier built in Dalian.

The city was the center of a humiliating military defeat early last century, when Russian and Japanese naval ships battled off the Dalian coast in a fight over the colonization of Northeast China. The Qing Dynasty(1644-1911) was hapless at the time and unable to defend the territory as Japan took control of three provinces in the Northeast.

“It was Dalian’s shame. Our navy was weak back then. Now we will have our own aircraft carrier, and it’s being built in Dalian. It’s symbolic and will help us forget the humiliation,” said Dalian resident Chen Tao who is a former serviceman.

The Dalian suburb of Lüshun has also become a key naval base for North China Sea Fleet. The local people seem proud of their more recent heritage as a naval power, which has created opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Model makers are eyeing potential business opportunities brought by the Varyag. They’re hoping to cash in once the ship officially sets sail. 

The owner of the Jingcheng Model-making Company in Dalian, told the Global Times that he has been trying to make 1:200 replicas of the 302-meter-long unnamed ship. He ran into detailing problems when he was unable to find precise specifications and has instead used information he gathered about a similar ship the Admiral Kuznetsov, he said. 

“Once the country officially launches the Varyag, many people will be buying a replica,” said Jingcheng’s owner who is surnamed Ma.

The military has also been tight-lipped over what type of aircraft the carrier will carry.  A replica of the ship’s flight deck has been photographed in Wuhan, Hubei Province and pilots have been seen training in China’s fighter jet the J-15 Flying Shark.

China 1 : US 12

Many Dalian residents seem interested in naval matters but most of those interviewed by the Global Times doubted the aircraft carrier will add that much capacity to the Chinese navy.

Even though the ship will dramatically enhance China’s ability to secure China’s waters in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, China’s navy remains well behind the US navy which has 12 aircraft carriers in service.

“It’s a symbol of strength, like a nuclear bomb. To have it doesn’t mean we will use it to kill. It’s a deterrent,” said resident Chen. “The carrier is a moving island; it enables our planes to be engaged farther away from China.”

“Most Chinese like me want our country to have a stronger military but you never have to worry about China being excessively aggressive,” local resident Lin He, 60, told the Global Times.

The rumor mill is churning out a new set of predictions for the launch and renaming of the Varyag.  The next likely date is August 1 the birthday of the PLA, after that pundits predict October 1 China’s National Day. 

There had been speculations the Varyag would be rechristened the Shilang, who was a naval commander in the early Qing Dynasty. He reunited Taiwan with the mainland.  China’s military authorities have dismissed this rumor.   
The Jamestown Foundation, a research institute in the US, speculated that Bai Yaoping, a member of the class of ‘1987 at the Guangzhou Warship Academy would command the aircraft carrier, but China’s military has given no hint as to who will captain the vessel. 

While it appears likely China’s largest warship will set sail for the first time sometime this year, it still won’t be ready for active duty. Insiders say it will take another year to finish the aircraft carrier’s weapons systems and train its crew and pilots.

Source: Global Times

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