|China's first aircraft carrier docked at a port in Dalian, Liaoning Province on Friday. Photo: CFP|
Tugboats steered the vessel out of the shipyard at about 6 am Wednesday, a source close to the trial run told the Global Times. A number of service ships accompanied the carrier on her maiden voyage.
The carrier took to sea without a naval code as it has not yet entered service, the source said. Some people in Dalian set off firecrackers to mark the event.
The Liaoning Provincial Maritime Safety Administration published a notice restricting navigation off the Dalian coast and in an area 13.25 nautical miles (24.54 kilometers) wide and 22 nautical miles long in the northern Yellow Sea and Liaodong Bay.
The restriction took effect Wednesday and last through Sunday, but there is no information available on how long the trial itself will last.
Military sources told the Xinhua News Agency that the trial is in line with the carrier's refitting schedule and will not last long. Refitting work will continue after the vessel returns to port.
Li Jie, an expert with the Naval Research Institute at the People's Liberation Army Navy, told the Global Times that the maiden trial is likely to involve tests of its power, weapons and control systems.
When contacted by the Global Times, the Ministry of Defense refused to elaborate on the first day of the trial, but said it would release more information in the following days.
The maiden voyage had long been expected. Preparations for the trial were visible from many points around Dalian and had been regularly photographed and documented online by military enthusiasts.
China officially acknowledged the refurbishing project of the aircraft carrier only last month, saying the vessel will be used as a platform for "research, experiments and training" and would take a long time to become fully operational.
Peng Guangqian, a military strategist, told the Global Times that the test trial is significant for China's military development, but people should not attach too much significance to it.
"It is a big thing for China's military, but aircraft carriers are nothing new in the world, and the current one, built mainly for training, will not have a major strategic impact on the global stage," Peng said.
"China's 'starter carrier' is of very limited military utility, and will primarily serve to confer prestige on a rising great power, help the military master basic procedures, and to project a bit of power," Reuters quoted Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the US Naval War College's Strategic Research Department, as saying.
"The carrier's maiden voyage appears to be a show cruise conducted close to home to both make the vessel a bit less accessible to prying eyes and also keep it near its home port if any mechanical problems materialize," Erickson said.
However, Rick Fisher, a US expert on the Chinese military, told AFP that Beijing was allowing reports and scant online images of the vessel to "propel anxieties" while saying very little about its aircraft carrier project and naval development.
"This 'psy-war' campaign has everything to do with China's multiple ongoing maritime territory disputes," said Fisher of the US-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Gu Guoliang, a researcher with the America Study Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that such claims distorted China's defense development.
"The US has never stopped developing high-tech weapons. Some countries in the Asia-Pacific region are also building or are trying to acquire aircraft carriers. I don't see any reason why China cannot have one," Gu said.
Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China is the only one without an operational carrier.
In Asia, Thailand has one carrier, and India is building its own. Australia is also trying to acquire two multi-purpose carriers, Reuters reported.
Analysts estimate it will be four decades before China can begin to compete with even one of Washington's 11 monster-sized Nimitz-class carriers, several of which are constantly traveling round the globe protecting US interests, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Commodore Miguel Jose Rodriguez, a spokesperson of the Philippine military, told the Manila-based Daily Inquirer newspaper that China's first carrier is "part of the confidence-building measures among navies around the world."
"They are acquiring these and there is no cause for alarm," Rodriguez said, adding that territorial disputes are best resolved at the negotiating table.