China's first aircraft carrier set sail for the first time Wednesday, steaming out of the northeastern port of Dalian for a long-awaited sea trial. While the voyage of the ship, known here by its Russian name Varyag, is a source of national pride, it is also raising concerns among China's neighbors.
In the late 1990s, China purchased the empty shell of the aircraft carrier from Ukraine. The vessel was built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s but ownership was transferred to Ukraine after the former communist government collapsed.
Since then, it has been the source of much speculation and discussion in military circles and highly anticipated by military enthusiasts in China.
For the past few weeks, Chinese state television and online military news websites have been following the ship's preparations on a daily basis.
It became clear the voyage was close at hand when China's Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng spoke publicly about the ship for the first time late last month.
At a routine monthly news conference, Geng confirmed China's plans to build a small number of aircraft carriers and offered assurances that Beijing's intentions are peaceful.
"China will stick to the path of peaceful development and its independent foreign policy of peace together with the country's national defense policy," said Geng. "We have a long coastline and spacious sea areas under our jurisdiction. It is the responsibility of China's armed forces to protect the territorial sea and preserve sea sovereignty and maritime rights.”
Geng said China is gathering opinions from many places to further the development of the aircraft carrier. He said the Varyag would be used for military training and scientific research.
A defense Ministry statement Wednesday said the carrier will soon return to harbor for continued refitting and test work.
Chinese officials have tried to downplay the significance of the carrier, but the ship has become a symbol of China's rising military power at a time of tension with several of its neighbors over competing maritime claims in the East and South China seas.
Arthur Ding, a China military analyst at Taiwan's National Chengchi University says the sea trip is just a preliminary trial.
“It's only I would say for the test to see if the whole structure of the ship is in good situation or not," said Ding. "It's not an operational test so I would say it's more on the psychological effect or [for what] we call domestic consumption.”
With many in China anxiously anticipating the launch of an aircraft carrier program, Ding says the trial will help to satisfy the public's desire to see the country meeting that milestone. Chinese state media frequently mention that China is the only member of the United Nations Security Council that does not have an aircraft carrier.
Ding adds that it is not surprising that Chinese officials are playing down the trial run for fear of alienating other countries in the region.
“I think China they know it's better for them to keep a low profile, so we need to see how the neighboring countries perceive that, but there no doubt that in the long term everybody expects that China has ambition to be a blue water navy, but it will take a tremendous time yet.”
Military analysts in China say it could take several more years to have the carrier fully operational and more than two decades to build an aircraft carrier program.
Most military analysts and commentators in China say the country eventually will need at least three aircraft carriers - one to continually be at sea, another in port for repairs and a third for training.