China's first aircraft carrier -- which attracted worldwide attention among fears that the second-largest economic powerhouse in the world is rapidly bolstering its military powers -- set sail on Wednesday for its sea trial.
All major maritime powers have aircraft carriers, which are gigantic moving battle platforms, and China's debut in this arena is belated. Xinhua reported that the carrier left its shipyard at Dalian Port in the northeast Liaoning Province, and said the ship's first sea trial "would not take a long time."
The aircraft carrier is refitted from an old former Soviet Union vessel, and once the sea trial is over, it will travel back to the shipyard to complete its rebuilding.
A Xinhua commentary says contrary to popular perception, acquisition of an aircraft carrier does not suggest China is on an aggressive military buildup. It says that China was the only UN Security Council member that did not have an aircraft carrier. Regional rivals India and Thailand have aircraft carriers.
The carrier, named Varyag, was built by the Russians, but was left incomplete following the disintegration of the former USSR. It was sold to the Ukraine in the 1990s as an empty hull and China later bought it.
The significance of the carrier is more in its symbolism than its strategic place in current power balance dictated by the nuclear arsenal and unconventional firepower.
"Its symbolic significance outweighs its practical significance," Ni Lexiong, an expert on Chinese maritime policy at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told Reuters.
"We're already a maritime power, and so we need an appropriate force, whether that's aircraft carriers or battleships, just like the United States or the British Empire did," he said.
However, ordinary Chinese say Varyag is all about the nation's pride as a great world power. They point out that not only the great powers like the U.S. and Russia, even India and Thailand have aircraft carriers.
"It isn't a big deal for China to have an aircraft carrier. It is in the state's interest," said Tan Changbin, a tourist from southwest China's Sichuan Province said, according to Xinhua.
It will take China several more years before it can deploy the aircraft carrier as a military tool. But the perceived aggression in China's recent defense postures has rattled neighbors and rivals.
Taiwan, with which China has decades-long dispute over sovereignty, especially views China's aircraft carrier with suspicion and fear.
According to Al Jazeera, the first signs of distrust and aggression were seen on Wednesday. At a defense exhibition, Taiwan displayed its advanced Hsiung Feng III missile in front of a billboard depicting a missile-riddled aircraft carrier with the words "aircraft carrier killer" written above, the Web site reported.
China has always claimed that Taiwan is part of its territory and has not ruled out annexing Taiwan by force.
China has been engaged in a military modernization mission in recent year. According to military sources, there are plans to build one more aircraft carrier.