China's first aircraft carrier steamed out of Dalian harbor for a sea trial Wednesday, providing a burst of national pride for China's people but a source of concern for many of its neighbors.
The short voyage by the refitted Ukrainian carrier ends weeks of speculation about the date of the vessel's initial sea trial. A defense Ministry statement said the carrier, formerly known as the Varyag, would soon return to harbor for continued refit and test work.
Chinese officials have downplayed the significance of the carrier, saying it will be used for scientific research, experiments and training. 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.
For Chinese, the long anticipated launch has sparked a wave of interest in aircraft carriers. The official Xinhua news agency on Wednesday carried photos of other nations' carriers in a front-page space normally reserved for publicity shots of Hollywood starlets.
A day earlier it featured photos of another Soviet-era carrier which is being converted to a hotel in the port city of Tianjin, near Beijing.
The sea trial had been widely expected to take place on July 1 to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of China's Communist Party. But Wednesday's brief defense ministry statement said the timing is in line with the schedule of the refit and will "not take a long time."
The stripped-down hull of the Varyag was purchased from Ukraine and towed to a shipyard in Dalian in 1998. China is expected to use knowledge gained from the process to build at least three more carriers.
Ministry spokesmen say that despite its carrier program, China remains committed to a naval strategy of defending its own shores. But some of China's neighbors worry the new vessel could be deployed as part of a battle group to project Chinese power in disputed areas including the South China Sea.
The ministry has also said the process of training pilots how to fly planes off an aircraft carrier is "in progress."