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Chasing China's first aircraft carrier

world Updated: Aug 12, 2011 01:32 IST

In June, I caught up with China's first aircraft carrier that on Wednesday honked thrice and slipped out of the northeast Dalian shipyard in the hazy dawn.

"Where's the hang kong mujian (aircraft carrier)?" I asked the chubby concierge as he opened my room in the port city's tallest hotel facing the noisy shipyard. I booked a sea-facing top floor room, hoping to sneak a glimpse of the refitted Soviet-era Varyag that was two months ago China's worst-kept naval secret.

"There is no aircraft carrier in Dalian," the concierge smiled innocently. The housekeeper popped out of the bathroom in consternation. "Aircraft carrier!" she shrieked, a bundle of towels in her arms. They left in a rush.

The local taxi driver breezily pointed to a vantage point behind Ikea and a desolate sports shop beside the 67,000-tonne warship sticking out behind blue barricades.

The Varyag, reportedly renamed the Shi Lang after a Qing-era conquerer of Taiwan, will sport a number starting with 8 on its hull.

The carrier is the platform to train the navy to roam distant waters on longer missions. It's the first step to rolling out three or more warships over a decade later and warning off smaller powers with islands claimed by China.

"Building a strong navy commensurate with China's rising status is a necessary step," tweeted Xinhua, "and an inevitable choice to safeguard its increasingly globalised national interests."

The new generation of maritime strategists says the era of lying low ended with the first three decades of economic reform and that it's time to pump up the volume on 'core interests' in the seas. The younger generation in maritime think-tanks openly chatters about some day reclaiming disputed islands from China's neighbours and prowling the Indian Ocean sea-lanes.

"Global waterways are still insecure," wrote Wang Xiaoxuan, director of the Naval Research Institute, on Thursday.

Wang warned countries with maritime disputes that 'China's pursuit of peace does not necessarily mean it will allow them to erode its core national interest'.

News of the carrier at sea gave Beijing a much-needed surge in the nationalist mood. Next time you're in Beijing, save the trip to Dalian. Check into the presidential suite in a hotel rebuilt with gaudy gold and silver interiors in a defunct aircraft carrier, 30-minutes away by bullet train to Tianjin.