Tuesday, March 13, 2012

'Varyag' could be launched this year; tensions rise between China, South Korea

A South Korean news outlet claims the aircraft carrier could patrol waters off a disputed islet that lies between overlapping EEZs claimed by China and South Korea

South Korea joined the ranks of Asian countries that are looking on with alarm as China flexes its muscles in the region after a Chinese military official reportedly hinted at a possible role for its first aircraft carrier near an islet claimed by both South Korea and China.

The diplomatic row comes as the Chinese Communist Party-owned People’s Daily reported yesterday that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Deputy Commander Xu Hongmeng (徐洪猛) had told media that the PLA “has a plan” to make its first aircraft carrier, the ex-Varyag, enter service this year.

It was the first time a PLA officer has officially mentioned a specific timing for the launch of the refurbished aircraft carrier. Defense analysts believe the carrier could be launched on Aug. 1 to coincide with the anniversary of the establishment of the PLA. Xu made the remarks on the sidelines of a second plenary meeting of the fifth session of the 11th National People’s Congress (NPC) on Thursday.

The yet-to-be-renamed carrier is expected to carry Shenyang J-15 fighter aircraft, as well as Z-8 transport helicopters. It will be based on Hainan Island and cover the East China Sea and South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with a number of claimants, including Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Xu said trial runs for the J-15 were in the pipeline and that takeoff and landing tests were expected to be carried out this month, along with further test runs of the aircraft carrier. Recent online images of the former Varyag show far less clutter on the deck than usual, which could be signs of an imminent sea trial.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported yesterday that the aircraft carrier could be used to patrol the waters off South Korea’s Ieo Island, a submerged rock 149km off the southern coast of Jeju Province, which Beijing claims is an extension of the continental shelf that falls under Chinese jurisdiction.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

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