BEIJING—China sent its first aircraft carrier to sea, a defining moment in its emergence as a top-tier naval power that seeks to challenge U.S. military supremacy in Asia and protect Chinese economic interests that now span the globe.
The carrier, based on an empty hull bought from Ukraine, sounded its horn three times as it plowed through fog around the northeastern port of Dalian early Wednesday to begin its first sea trials, according to a Twitter-like service by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
The vessel, nearly 1,000 feet long, is far from fully operational: It has a new engine, radar, guns and other equipment, but has limited combat potential without backup from other carriers and an array of support ships. For the moment, it will be used mainly for training personnel, especially fighter pilots who must learn to take off from and land on a moving deck
China’s carrier, designed to carry about 2,000 people and 50 fighter jets, is dwarfed by the nuclear-powered U.S. Nimitz-class “supercarrier,” which can carry 6,250 people and launch planes with more fuel and weaponry thanks to a catapult system and longer runway. China’s carrier, which is not nuclear powered, is thought to have a gas-turbine or marine-diesel engine.
China has yet to name its carrier, and tried to play down its significance Wednesday, saying in a Xinhua commentary: “There should be no excessive worries or paranoid feelings on China’s pursuit of an aircraft carrier, as it will not pose a threat to other countries.”
The vessel nonetheless sends a powerful message both to China’s domestic audience, for whom a carrier has for decades been equated with national strength, and to the U.S. and its regional allies, many of whom are embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing.
It is the most potent symbol yet of China’s long-term desire to develop the power both to deny U.S. naval access to Asian waters and to protect its global economic interests, including shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and oil sources in the Middle East.
Its launch is thus seen as a milestone in relations between an ascendant China, bent on reclaiming its historical role as a global superpower, and a debt-ridden U.S. that wants to retain the military supremacy it has wielded in Asia since 1945.
China denies trying to match the might of the U.S. Navy, which now has 11 carriers, including one, the George Washington, that is based in Japan. Even Chinese experts admit it could take a decade to master the intricate choreography of a carrier group, which typically involves frigates, destroyers, submarines and satellites, all using an integrated command and control system.
But serving and retired Chinese officers make no secret of their country’s aspiration to develop up to four larger, indigenous carriers by around 2020.
China has also alarmed the U.S. and its regional allies in the past year with a more combative stance on territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.
The Pentagon is also playing down the carrier’s significance. Some U.S. officials privately question the quality of Chinese engineering, which came into sharp relief last month with a deadly train crash on the country’s high-speed rail network.
At the same time, the U.S. is countering China’s military build-up by shoring up defense ties with old Asian allies Japan and South Korea as well as new partners like India and Vietnam.
Several Asian nations, including Japan and Australia, are beefing up their arsenals too, fearing that the U.S. security umbrella is being eroded by China’s enhanced capabilities and possible U.S. defense budget cuts.
For Beijing, however, the carrier’s short-term capabilities are less important than its symbolic significance, especially for Communist Party leaders courting military support ahead of a leadership change next year.
As if to exaggerate the achievement for a fiercely nationalistic audience, China’s state television featured no images of the sea trials, and instead used footage of what appeared to be fighter jets taking off from Russian or U.S. carriers.
“From the Opium War in 1840 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China suffered more than 470 offenses and invasions that came from the seas,” the Xinhua commentary said.
Chinese officials say their country’s naval power is now expanding in tandem with its economic interests, and has benefited the rest of the world by taking part in antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.