China has almost completed reconstruction work on the Varyag, a defunct Soviet-era carrier it purchased from Ukraine in 1998 for a reported US$20 million, leading to media speculation that the test voyage of the country's first aircraft carrier is imminent.
"The remodeling work on the aircraft carrier is almost finished and a test voyage could take place as early as Aug. 1, which marks the founding of the People's Liberation Army," the online edition of China's Global Times reported on Monday. The story was picked up by several Hong Kong media, including Wenweipo and Phoenix Satellite TV.
China has since 2005 been working on the vessel, now renamed the "Shi Lang" after a decorated admiral from the 17th century who famously conquered Taiwan.
The Global Times posted scores of photographs last Thursday showing the bridge of the carrier near completion and pieces of scaffolding being removed. Some photos also showed rescue boats and other equipment being loaded onto the carrier.
"The exterior of the Varyag has been painted in the standard light gray color of the Chinese navy. Remodeling work is in its final stages," reported the Eastday.Com, another Chinese Internet media.
A 20,000-ton Chinese naval vessel flying the flags of all nations was also spotted this month moored next to the Varyag, as thousands of soldiers rehearsed celebratory drills for the carrier's official launch. A group of uniformed female soldiers were also witnessed boarding the Varyag for a tour.
These observations have led China watchers to assume that the test voyage of the aircraft carrier will take place no later than Oct. 1, the founding day of the People's Republic of China.
The Varyag has apparently been fitted with radar and other navigational equipment, but weapons systems have yet to be installed. Chen Bingde, chief of the PLA General Staff, refused to confirm the reports to journalists on July 11, but his comments suggested a tacit acknowledgment of the remodeling work.
"I have nothing more to say about Chinese aircraft carriers, since prominent media have already reported on them so much," he said.