2012-01-26 (China Military News cited from businessweek.com and by Paul M. Barrett) — An Admiral Kuznetsov-class warship, the vessel was to be 1,000 feet long, with a displacement of 65,000 tons. For a carrier of that vintage, the Varyag would be a middleweight, envisioned as the platform for several dozen short-takeoff, vertical-landing fighter jets, as well as 8 or 10 helicopters. By contrast, a U.S.S. Nimitz-class supercarrier has a load displacement of nearly 100,000 tons and room for at least 70 planes, many of them longer-range. The Varyag’s keel was laid at the Mykolaiv Shipyard in southern Ukraine and, though not finished, it took to the water in 1988. Two years later the ship-in-the-making seemed to be on its way to joining Moscow’s Black Sea fleet.
Then the USSR fell apart in 1991, and Ukraine inherited the still-unfinished Varyag. It was starting to resemble an aircraft carrier, the sort of vessel found at the core of any first-tier navy. The ship had a distinctive ski-jump incline at one end, meant to help launch aircraft. (American carriers have flat flight decks equipped with mechanized slingshots for the same purpose.) But the Varyag lacked critical elements, including electronics and engines. In 1992, as the former Soviet republics tentatively stumbled out of communism, construction of the ship ceased altogether. Ukraine couldn’t afford to complete the vessel, according to a dispatch from the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS. Still, TASS added, “the project has already cost the budget a pretty penny, and it would be absurd to scrap the ship.” Engineless and rusting, the Varyag languished at anchor.In 1997 the National Agency of Ukraine for Reconstruction and Development followed the example of countless homeowners faced with too much old junk: It organized a garage sale. With the opening bid set at $20 million, competition for the powerless hulk was not exactly fierce. In November 1998 a well-connected Chinese entrepreneur named Cheng Zhen Shu said his company in Hong Kong, the Chong Lot Travel Agency, would pay the minimum $20 million for the privilege of towing the Varyag out of the Black Sea, through the Mediterranean, and all the way to the gambling haven of Macau, then controlled by Portugal. There, Cheng said, his company would refit the warship as a floating hotel and casino.
Devoted almost exclusively to coastal defense, the 500-vessel Chinese navy has long suffered a powerful case of aircraft carrier envy. During a meeting of the country’s Central Military Commission on Jan. 21, 1958, Chairman Mao himself proposed the construction of “railways on the high seas”—oceangoing fleets of merchant ships escorted by carriers—according to a 2010 article in the Naval War College Review by Nan Li and Christopher Weuve, faculty members at the U.S. Naval War College. Mao’s idea died for lack of funding, as did a plan in the 1970s to acquire a late-model carrier from Britain. In the 1980s, General Liu Huaqing, then the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, expressed his chagrin about the lack of a carrier. Liu, an intimate of Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, wore oversize aviator-style glasses and typically had a doleful look when photographed in his pea-green uniform. He had joined the Communist military in 1931 at the age of 14. “Without an aircraft carrier,” he declared in 1987, according to the state news agency Xinhua, “I will die with my eyelids open”—meaning he would depart this life with a dear wish unfulfilled.
Liu retired from the military in 1997. When the Varyag was acquired a year later, it became his best hope for meeting his reward with his eyes closed.
The ex-Soviet ship was not the first used carrier China had purchased. In 1982 Beijing bought the smallish (15,000-ton) Majestic-class carrier Melbourne from Australia; it was dismantled for study and then scrapped. In 1998, the Russians sold China the much larger carrier Minsk, and, two years later, one called the Kiev. After undergoing similar scrutiny by Chinese ship designers, the Minsk and Kiev were turned into floating amusement parks.
Beijing’s military planners do not have a made-in-China bias, observes Robert S. Wells, a former U.S. Navy commander who now advises the Pentagon as a private consultant based in northern Virginia. “They are eager to imitate foreign technology,” he says, “and they don’t have any concerns about intellectual property rights.” In December 2006 the South China Morning Post reported that the Chinese military had completed a large-scale model of a Nimitz-class carrier, apparently for training purposes.