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a large-deck, conventionally powered CTOL carrier in the fifty-thousand-ton range capable of launching and retrieving carrier-capable versions of Russian Su-30 aircraft, possibly within the next few years. While these aspirations are not to be lightly dismissed, Chinese-language sources reflect little attention to this program, far less than to smaller helicopter and VSTOL-carrying ships. If a ves- sel along the lines of the 9935 concept were to come down the ways in a Chinese shipyard, it would be likely to do so under the twelfth five-year plan, which will begin in 2011. In the near term, it is critical to monitor the purchase or produc- tion of support ships, aircraft, and shipboard systems that would be required to support an operational carrier strike group regardless of whether the notional 9935 carrier or some other vessel is to constitute its core.
Rebuilding China has already purchased four decommissioned aircraft carriers, to consid- erable Western media speculation. In 1985, China purchased for scrap the Aus- tralian carrier HMAS Melbourne, from which it may have learned engineering principles—albeit limited and perhaps antiquated ones—when dismantling it. The ex-Russian Minsk, acquired by front companies in 1998, is now the center- piece of a Chinese “military education” amusement park in Shenzhen.31 A ship of the same class, Kiev, arrived in Tianjin in 2000;32 it was subsequently reno- vated to attract tourists as the center of “China’s largest national defense educa- tion base” and “the world’s largest military theme park.”33 A visit to Kiev in June 2006 revealed a replica of a PRC J-10 aircraft, of which China may be developing a carrier-compatible version, below deck. The vessel itself, however, appeared to receive only cosmetic maintenance and is therefore likely in no condition to go to sea.34 Finally, the Russian “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” Admiral Kuznetzov–class Varyag (purchased from Ukraine in 1998 for twenty million dollars and delivered in 2002) has attracted renewed international attention af- ter having recently received a fresh coat of PLAN silver-gray paint, and possibly other renovations, at Dalian Shipyard.35 The subject of much press speculation, Varyag is the most likely candidate if a decommissioned carrier is to be made op- erational. At the very least, its expensive acquisition and lengthy refurbishing seem to contradict the stated intention of its original buyer, Macao’s Agencia Turisticae Diversoes Chong Lot Limitada, to use it as a floating casino. There have even been claims that by 2008 Varyag will be operational and based in Yalong Bay, Sanya City, on Hainan Island, to protect the Spratlys and the Taiwan Strait.36 A senior Chinese official has told the authors that “some naval officers want”to refit Varyag and that “there is still a heated debate.”37 The significance of this insight is that operationalizing Varyag is not a dead letter in senior naval cir- cles and that debate over its general utility and possible future roles continues.