China's first aircraft carrier, a retrofitted ship bought from Ukraine in 1998, is expected to be mainly used for training purposes and could begin sea trials within a few weeks, a state-run newspaper reported on Tuesday.
The former Soviet carrier Varyag, once destined to become a floating casino, is part of President Hu Jintao’s push to modernise the navy.
Chinese military and political sources have said Beijing could launch the carrier this year, as China marks 90 years since the founding of the ruling Communist Party.
Such a launch would be a first, exploratory step towards an operational carrier fleet.
"The … Varyag is expected to serve primarily as a training vessel for pilots and deck crews," the English-language China Daily reported.
It "will begin initial sea trials probably either late this month, in early August or later in the year," the official newspaper added. "It is uncertain when the Varyag will be made operational and where it will be based."
The report also said there were "rumours … saying that another aircraft carrier is being built in Shanghai". It did not elaborate.
Chen Bingde, chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff, told the United States’ visiting top military officer that the Varyag was a useful tool for China.
"Our American friends all know that China bought an old aircraft carrier, the Varyag, from Ukraine. It’s very valuable for us to research these things this way," the China Daily quoted him as telling Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Chen confirmed via Hong Kong media last month that the country was indeed building a carrier.
Analysts say though that in practical terms it is likely to take the Chinese navy years to have a credible carrier operation in Asia’s seas, which have largely been the domain of the U.S. navy since World War Two.
The cost of building a medium-sized conventionally-powered, 60,000-tonne carrier similar to the Russian Kuznetsov class could exceed $2 billion. China is likely to acquire at least two, sources say.
The carrier will add to regional concerns about China’s military modernisation and arms build-up.
In recent weeks, China has been flexing its muscles more aggressively in the South China Sea, where a territorial dispute with Taiwan and several Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines, has festered for years.
China is also working on a ballistic missile which could pose a serious threat to U.S. aircraft carriers, the very ships Washington could send to the seas around Taiwan in the event of a crisis with the self-ruled island China claims as its own.
"The missile is still undergoing experimental testing and will be used as a defensive weapon when it is successfully developed, not an offensive one," Chen was quoted as saying.
"It is a high-tech weapon and we face many difficulties in getting funding, advanced technologies and high-quality personnel, which are all underlying reasons why it is hard to develop this."