While it is no secret that the PLA Navy is building a carrier fleet, the interview given by the PLA’s chief of staff General Chen Bingde to the Commercial Daily in Hong Kong is the highest level official confirmation to date. Chen says that the first aircraft carrier is under construction in Dalian. (Maybe he has been to the IKEA store in the city, from where, we hear, it can be seen; there is footage here; or just looked on Google Maps, above.)
The vessel is a conversion of the unfinished hull of a 1980s-era former Soviet Union carrier, the 58,500-ton Varyag, that China bought in 1998 to turn into a training carrier that is due to come into service in 2012. Full sea trials are expected to start soon.
Coming along behind are two 50,000-60,000-ton conventionally powered indigenous carriers being built in Shanghai with the first planned for launch in 2014. A nuclear powered carrier is scheduled to be launched by 2020.
Chen’s assistant chief of staff, Qi Jianguo, told the newspaper that even once deployed the training carrier wouldn’t sail into other countries’ territorial waters, but added that there was an urgent need for China to develop its maritime strategy as it faces pressures in all the waters off its coasts. He also said bluntly that having carriers puts China among the ranks of the world powers as carriers are “symbols of a great nation”.