China is planning an initial sea trial of its first aircraft carrier next month, a Hong Kong newspaper said Tuesday, a move likely to further worry neighbors amid heightened tensions over territorial disputes.
Some form of limited testing of the ship is planned to coincide with celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, the Hong Kong Commercial Daily said.
The newspaper reported earlier this month that a top general, Chen Bingde, told it that the carrier was being outfitted, the highest-level confirmation by the secretive military that work is under way. Chen refused to give a timetable for its completion.
China has spent the best part of a decade refurbishing the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag after it was towed from Ukraine in 1998, and the carrier program has been widely known for several years.
Activity aboard the ship, docked in the northern port of Dalian, has picked up in recent days, with photos on military enthusiast websites showing workers removing heavy equipment from its sloped flight deck.
The newspaper said the ship will be formally launched next year on Oct. 1, China's national day, after workers complete the installation of weapons systems and other equipment.
The still-unnamed ship was bought as an empty shell without engines, weapons systems, or other crucial equipment and isn't believed to have traveled before under its own propulsion. Years of sea trials and flight training are needed before it will be fully operational.
Once launched, it is expected to primarily serve as a training vessel for the navy and for naval pilots, while China moves swiftly to build its own carriers.
The carrier's move toward operability raises the stakes for Washington, long the pre-eminent naval power in Asia, and jangles the already edgy nerves of China's neighbors upset with what they see as Beijing's more assertive posture in enforcing claims to disputed territories.
Over the past year, China has seen a flare-up in territorial spats with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam and seen its relations strained with South Korea _ all of which have turned to Washington for support.