By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) – China launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier on Wednesday amid rising tension over North Korea and worries about Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
State media has quoted military experts as saying the carrier, China’s second and built in the northeastern port of Dalian, is not expected to enter service until 2020, once it has been kitted out and armed.
Foreign military analysts and Chinese media have for months published satellite images, photographs and news stories about the second carrier’s development. China confirmed its existence in late 2015.
The launch “shows our country’s indigenous aircraft carrier design and construction has achieved major step-by-step results”, Xinhua news agency said.
State television showed the carrier, its deck lined in red flags, being pushed by tug boats into its berth.
Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, presided over the ceremony, Xinhua said, during which a bottle of champagne was broken on the bow.
The launch follows China’s celebration on Sunday of the 68th birthday of the founding of the Chinese navy, and comes amid renewed tensions between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
Little is known about China’s aircraft carrier program, which is a state secret.
But the government has said the new carrier’s design draws on experiences from the country’s first carrier, the Liaoning, bought second-hand from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted in China.
The new conventionally powered carrier will be able to operate China’s Shenyang J-15 fighter jets.
Unlike the U.S. navy’s longer-range nuclear carriers, both of China’s feature Soviet-design ski-jump bows, intended to give fighter jets enough lift to take off from their shorter decks. But they lack the powerful catapult technology for launching aircraft of their U.S. counterparts.
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