First Chinese aircraft carrier begins maiden voyage

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The Independent Online

China's first aircraft carrier swept through fog-shrouded waters yesterday to open sea trials that underscore concerns about the country's growing military strength. The mission by the refurbished former Soviet carrier marks a first step in readying the craft for full deployment.

China says the ship is intended for research and training, pointing to plans to build up to three additional carriers in China's own shipyards. China has spent the better part of a decade refurbishing the carrier formerly known as the Varyag, and the 300-metre vessel departed from the northern port of Dalian, where it is being overhauled.

Beijing's carrier programme is seen as the natural outgrowth of the country's military expansion, fed by two decades of near-continuous, double-digit percentage increases in the defence budget. China's announced military spending rose to $91.5bn (£56.4bn) last year, the second highest in the world after the United States.

While the development of carriers is driven largely by national prestige, China's naval ambitions have also been brought into focus with its claims to disputed territory surrounding Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

Taiwan, the island democracy claimed by China as its own, has responded by developing missiles capable of striking carriers at sea. An illustration at a display of military technology in Taiwan's capital Taipei yesterday showed a Hsiung Feng III missile hitting a carrier that bore striking similarities to the former Varyag.