Beijing, August 10: China's first aircraft carrier today made its maiden voyage - sparking fears over the country's naval ambitions.
The former Soviet craft swept through fog-shrouded waters on leaving the north-east port of Dalian.
The official Xinhua news agency said the still unfinished 300 metre ship sounded its horn three times during the ‘tentative test run' off the coast of the Liaoning province.
The launch of the ship, which is being followed by three crafts being developed from scratch, has marked a massive step forward in China's long-term plans to build a carrier force to project power into the Asian region.
But it has also provoked concerns abroad about Bejiing's naval ambitions.
Ni Lexiong, an expert on Chinese maritime policy at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said: ‘Its symbolic significance outweighs its practical significance.
‘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.'
The Xinhua agency added: ‘Building a strong navy that is commensurate with China's rising status is a necessary step and an inevitable choice for the country to safeguard its increasingly globalised national interests.'
But Chengxin Pan, an expert on China at Deakin University in Australia, warned it could unsettle neighbouring countries.
He said: ‘For many neighbours, it may symbolise something different and more unsettling.
‘It is inevitable that neighbouring countries will react with some alarm, especially given recent disputes in the South China Sea as well as the maritime incident between China and Japan last year.'
Refitting and test work will continue on the carrier when it returns from its short sea trial, which is expected to be completed by 6pm on Sunday.
The Varyag, yet to be officially renamed, was towed from Ukraine as an empty shell without engines, weapons systems or other crucial equipment.
Ashley Townshend, at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said China would need at least three carriers if it was ‘serious' about having a viable carrier strike group.
He also said that it would have to develop support ships and aircraft for any carrier group, which could take ten years.
China's neighbours India and Thailand already have aircraft carriers, and Australia has ordered two multi-purpose carriers. The United States operates 11.
The former chief of the Philippine's navy Admiral Ferdinand Golez said his country should not be worried by the development.
He said: ‘The Philippines should not be concerned with this development.
‘An aircraft carrier is an offensive tool but I don't think China has the intention to use it to bully its neighbours.'
Before the launch, a Pentagon spokesman played down the likelihood of any immediate leaps from China's carrier programme.
But that is just one part of China's naval modernisation drive, which has forged ahead while other powers tighten their military budgets to cope with debt woes.
China has been building new submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles as part of its naval modernisation, which has triggered regional jitters that have fed into long-standing territorial disputes, and could speed up military expansion across Asia.
In the past year, China has had run-ins at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The incidents - boat crashes and charges of territorial incursions - have been minor, but the diplomatic reaction often heated.
Chengxin Pan added: ‘Overall, the perception of a rapidly rising and potentially threatening China is likely to be reinforced and Beijing will face enormous challenges in dispelling such a perception.'
China's defence budget has shot up nearly 70 percent over five years, while Japan, struggling with public debt, has cut military outlays by 3 percent over the same period, a Japanese government report said.
Britain's only aircraft carrier, the Royal Navy flagship Ark Royal, was decommissioned in March after 25 years' service.
Two new ships are being built, but are unlikely to be in service for 10 years or more.