China launched its first aircraft carrier for a maiden run on Wednesday, a step likely to boost patriotic pride at home and jitters abroad about Beijing's naval ambitions.
The carrier "left its shipyard in Dalian Port in northeast Liaoning province on Wednesday morning to start its first sea trial," said the official Xinhua news agency, describing the trip as a tentative test run for the unfinished ship.
The aircraft carrier, which is about 300 meters (984 feet) long, plowed through fog and sounded its horn three times as it left the dock, Xinhua said on its military news microblog.
Retired Chinese navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo told state-run television that his country intended to build an air carrier group, but the task would be long and difficult.
"As for forming a carrier group, I think that will take at least ten years," he told a Chinese television broadcast on the carrier launch.
Last month, China confirmed that it was refitting the old, unfinished Soviet carrier hull bought from Ukraine's government, and sources told Reuters it was also building two of its own carriers.
"China has had a longstanding fascination with the national prestige attached to aircraft carriers, and this first sea trial may be seen as a crucial step toward the goal of achieving great naval power status," said Chengxin Pan, an expert on China at Deakin University in Australia.
If Beijing is serious about having a viable carrier strike group, however, it will need three carriers, Ashley Townshend at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney told Reuters in an interview before the debut of the vessel.
China would also have to develop support ships and aircraft for any carrier group, Townshend said.
In China's neighborhood, India and Thailand already have aircraft carriers, and Australia has ordered two multi-purpose carriers. The United States operates 11 carriers.
Before the launch, a Pentagon spokesman played down the likelihood of any immediate leaps from China's carrier program. U.S. experts on the Chinese navy agreed.
"A newly-wed couple wants a 'starter home', a new great power wants a 'starter carrier'," Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College and Gabriel Collins, a security analyst, wrote in a note about the carrier launch (www.andrewerickson.com).
"China's 'starter carrier' is of very limited military utility, and will primarily serve to confer prestige on a rising great power, to help the military master basic procedures, and to project a bit of power," they wrote.
STRATFOR: Dispatch: China's First Aircraft Carrier (April 2011)
Carrier operations are not something that’s easy to do, it’s going to take a very long time for the Chinese to be able to work through the various technicalities of this. It’s also not something they’re going to be able to learn from other people. The Russians haven’t done carrier operations a very long time and United States is certainly not going to be training them. So this is going to be years before the Chinese really have the coordination to be able to move large carrier battle groups anywhere. And that assumes also that China builds more carriers. A single carrier gives you almost no capability. It’s got to be in port, it’s got to be in for refit, it can only go to one location. Until they have about three carriers, they really don’t even have the opportunity to maintain a single carrier on station at any given point in time.
This is really more about politics rather than about military capabilities at this moment. Certainly, the Chinese will use this to learn, to train, to be able to develop new capabilities. But it’s about giving the sense that China has emerged, that China really is no longer just a second-tier country, but economically, politically and militarily, China is one of the big boys now.