26 April 2011
THE FORMER SOVIET aircraft carrier Varyag berths at Dalian, northeast China, in May 2002. Taiwan's spy chief said April 25 that China could bring the carrier into service before the end of 2011. (File photo / Agence France-Presse)
TAIPEI - Taiwan's spy chief on April 25 said China could bring its first aircraft carrier into service before the end of the year, kindling fears in Taipei over Beijing's continued naval buildup.
Tsai Teh-sheng, head of the island's National Security Bureau, said Varyag - a half-completed Soviet-era aircraft carrier Beijing obtained from Ukraine in 1998 - is expected to make its maiden voyage before the end of 2011.
The warship has been docked in China's Dalian harbor, where it has undergone extensive refurbishing work since 2002.
"Varyag has restored its sailing capability, and is expected to start providing training missions before the end of 2011," Tsai said in response to a parliamentary question by Lin Yu-fang of the ruling Kuomintang party.
Tsai said the warship will have "certain combat capability" and will serve as a base for an unknown number of China's home-grown fighter jets, which are modeled on Russian-made Su-33s.
Taiwan's defense ministry has expressed alarm at China's naval buildup although experts say it may still take time for the People's Liberation Army to operate its first carrier group complete with fighter jets.
"The Chinese communists' acquisition of their first aircraft carrier will threaten not only Taiwan but the stability of Asia," said David Lo, spokesman for Taiwan's defense ministry.
Taiwan plans to build a new "stealth" warship armed with guided missiles next year in response to China's naval build-up, military officers have said.
An aircraft carrier group would potentially double the military threat posed to Taiwan by China by allowing the Chinese to approach from directions other than across the strait, experts warn.
Ties between China and Taiwan have improved significantly since Ma Ying-jeou became the island's president, vowing to adopt a nonconfrontational policy toward the mainland. But China still regards Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting to be reunified by force if necessary, although the island has governed itself since 1949, when a civil war ended.